Sustained formation of progenitor globular clusters in a giant elliptical galaxy

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Globular clusters (GCs) are thought to be ancient relics from the early formative phase of galaxies, although their physical origin remains uncertain1,2. GCs are most numerous around massive elliptical galaxies, where they can exhibit a broad colour dispersion, suggesting a wide metallicity spread3. Here, we show that many thousands of compact and massive (~5 × 103–3 × 106M) star clusters have formed at an approximately steady rate over, at least, the past ~1 Gyr around NGC 1275, the central giant elliptical galaxy of the Perseus cluster. Beyond ~1 Gyr, these star clusters are indistinguishable in broadband optical colours from the more numerous GCs. Their number distribution exhibits a similar dependence with luminosity and mass as the GCs, whereas their spatial distribution resembles a filamentary network of multiphase gas4,5 associated with cooling of the intracluster gas6,7. The sustained formation of these star clusters demonstrates that progenitor GCs can form over cosmic history from cooled intracluster gas, thus contributing to both the large number and broad colour dispersion—owing to an age spread, in addition to a spread in metallicity—of GCs in massive elliptical galaxies. The progenitor GCs have minimal masses well below the maximal masses of Galactic open star clusters, affirming a common formation mechanism for star clusters over all mass scales8,9,10 irrespective of their formative pathways.

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Fig. 1: Colour–colour diagram of star clusters belonging to NGC 1275.
Fig. 2: Spatial distributions of different star cluster populations in NGC 1275.
Fig. 3: Luminosity and mass functions for the BSCs and GCs.

Data availability

The data that support the plots within this paper and other findings of this study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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This work was based on observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, and obtained from the Hubble Legacy Archive, which is a collaboration between the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI/NASA), the Space Telescope European Coordinating Facility (ST-ECF/ESA) and the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre (CADC/NRC/CSA). J.L. acknowledges support from the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong through grants 17303414 and 17304817. Y.O. acknowledges support by grant MOST 107-2119-M-001-026-. T.B. thanks University of Hong Kong for generous support from the Visiting Research Professor Scheme.

Author information

J.L. supervised the project and wrote the paper. E.W. and Y.O. conducted the technical aspects of the work. T.B. and E.M. initiated the project and participated in the interpretation of the results.

Correspondence to Jeremy Lim.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Astronomy thanks Pavel Kroupa and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–11, Tables 1–4 and refs. 1–14

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Lim, J., Wong, E., Ohyama, Y. et al. Sustained formation of progenitor globular clusters in a giant elliptical galaxy. Nat Astron (2019) doi:10.1038/s41550-019-0909-6

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