Hubble space telescope observations of cD galaxies and their globular cluster systems

Andrés Jordán, Patrick Côté, Michael J. West, Ronald O. Marzke, Dante Minniti, Marina Rejkuba

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We have used WFPC2 on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to obtain F450W and F814W images of four cD galaxies (NGC 541 in Abell 194, NGC 2832 in Abell 779, NGC 4839 in Abell 1656, and NGC 7768 in Abell 2666) in the range 5400 km s -1 ≲ cz ≲ 8100 km s-1. For NGC 541, the HST data are supplemented by ground-based B and I images obtained with FORS1 on the Very Large Telescope. We present surface brightness and color profiles for each of the four galaxies, confirming their classification as cD galaxies. Isophotal analyses reveal the presence of subarcsecond-scale dust disks in the nuclei of NGC 541 and NGC 7768. Despite the extreme nature of these galaxies in terms of spatial extent and luminosity, our analysis of their globular cluster (GC) systems reveals no anomalies in terms of specific frequencies, metallicity gradients, average metallicities, or the metallicity offset between the globular clusters and the host galaxy. We show that the latter offset appears roughly constant at A[Fe/H] ∼ 0.8 dex for early-type galaxies spanning a luminosity range of roughly 4 orders of magnitude. We combine the globular cluster metallicity distributions with an empirical technique described in a series of earlier papers to investigate the form of the protogalactic mass spectrum in these cD galaxies. We find that the observed GC metallicity distributions are consistent with those expected if cD galaxies form through the cannibalism of numerous galaxies and protogalactic fragments that formed their stars and globular clusters before capture and disruption. However, the properties of their GC systems suggest that dynamical friction is not the primary mechanism by which these galaxies are assembled. We argue that cD's instead form rapidly, via hierarchical merging, prior to cluster virialization.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-47
Number of pages24
JournalAstronomical Journal
Issue number1 1777
StatePublished - Jan 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Galaxies: elliptical and lenticular, cD
  • Galaxies: individual (NGC 541, NGC 2832, NGC 4839, NGC 7768)
  • Galaxies: star clusters
  • Galaxies: structure


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