A single population of red globular clusters around the massive compact galaxy NGC 1277



Massive galaxies are thought to form in two phases: an initial collapse of gas and giant burst of central star formation, followed by the later accretion of material that builds up their stellar and dark-matter haloes1,2,3,4. The systems of globular clusters within such galaxies are believed to form in a similar manner. The initial central burst forms metal-rich (spectrally red) clusters, whereas more metal-poor (spectrally blue) clusters are brought in by the later accretion of less-massive satellites5,6,7,8,9,10. This formation process is thought to result in the multimodal optical colour distributions that are seen in the globular cluster systems of massive galaxies8,11,12. Here we report optical observations of the massive relic-galaxy candidate NGC 1277—a nearby, un-evolved example of a high-redshift ‘red nugget’ galaxy13,14,15,16,17. We find that the optical colour distribution of the cluster system of NGC 1277 is unimodal and entirely red. This finding is in strong contrast to other galaxies of similar and larger stellar mass, the cluster systems of which always exhibit (and are generally dominated by) blue clusters11. We argue that the colour distribution of the cluster system of NGC 1277 indicates that the galaxy has undergone little (if any) mass accretion after its initial collapse, and use simulations of possible merger histories to show that the stellar mass due to accretion is probably at most ten per cent of the total stellar mass of the galaxy. These results confirm that NGC 1277 is a genuine relic galaxy and demonstrate that blue clusters constitute an accreted population in present-day massive galaxies.

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We thank C. dalla Vecchia, J. Sanchez Almeida, C. Brook, S. Wellons, M. Fouesneau, A. Vazdekis, B. Dullo, J. Read and G. van de Ven for discussions, and J. Roman and A. Serrano Borlaf for assistance with image alignment. M.A.B. and I.T. acknowledge support from grant AYA2016-77237-C3-1-P from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (MINECO). R.L. acknowledges funding from a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada PDF award. This research has made use of the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database (NED), which is operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under contract with NASA, and is based on observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy under NASA contract NAS 5-26555. These observations are associated with programme GO-14215. Support for this work was provided by NASA through grant HST-GO-4215 from the Space Telescope Science Institute, operated by AURA under NASA contract NAS 5-26555 This research has made use of NASA’s Astrophysics Data System and extensive use of Python and Scipy.

Author information


  1. Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Calle Vía Láctea, La Laguna, Spain

    • Michael A. Beasley
    •  & Ignacio Trujillo
  2. University of La Laguna, Avenida Astrofísico Francisco. Sánchez, La Laguna, Spain

    • Michael A. Beasley
    •  & Ignacio Trujillo
  3. Max-Planck Institut für Astronomie, Königstuhl 17, D-69117, Heidelberg, Germany

    • Ryan Leaman
  4. Department of Astronomy, Yale University, 06511 New Haven, Connecticut, USA

    • Mireia Montes


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M.A.B. led the data processing and analysis, contributed to the interpretation and HST proposal preparation and produced Figs 1, 2, 3 and Extended Data Figs 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. I.T. contributed to the analysis and the interpretation, produced Extended Data Fig. 1 and lead the HST proposal preparation. R.L. generated and analysed the analytic merger models, produced Fig. 4 and Extended Data Figs 7, 8, and contributed to the analysis, interpretation and HST proposal preparation. M.M. contributed to the analysis, interpretation and HST proposal preparation. All authors contributed to the overall design of this project.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael A. Beasley.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks R. Abraham, K. Glazebrook and L. Spitler for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data


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