Resolving the Stellar Outskirts of M81: Evidence for a Faint, Extended Structural Component

M. K. Barker, A. M. N. Ferguson, M. Irwin, N. Arimoto, P. Jablonka, Annette Ferguson

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We present a wide field census of resolved stellar populations in the northern half of M81, conducted with Suprime-Cam on the 8 m Subaru telescope and covering an area ~0.3 deg2. The resulting color-magnitude diagram reaches over one magnitude below the red giant branch (RGB) tip, allowing a detailed comparison between the young and old stellar spatial distributions. The surface density of stars with ages lsim100 Myr is correlated with that of neutral hydrogen in a manner similar to the disk-averaged Kennicutt-Schmidt relation. We trace this correlation down to gas densities of ~2 × 1020 cm-2, lower than typically probed with Hα flux. Both diffuse light and resolved RGB star counts show compelling evidence for a faint, extended structural component beyond the bright optical disk, with a much flatter surface brightness profile. The star counts allow us to probe this component to significantly fainter levels than is possible with the diffuse light alone. From the colors of its RGB stars, we estimate that this component has a peak global metallicity [M/H] ~ -1.1 ± 0.3 at deprojected radii 32-44 kpc assuming an age of 10 Gyr and distance of 3.6 Mpc. The spatial distribution of its RGB stars follows a power-law surface density profile, I(r) vprop r -γ, with γ ~ 2. If this component were separate from the bulge and from the bright optical disk, then it would contain ~10%-15% of M81's total V-band luminosity. We discuss the possibility that this is M81's halo or thick disk, and in particular highlight its similarities and differences with these components in the Milky Way. Other possibilities for its nature, such as a perturbed disk or the faint extension of the bulge, cannot be completely ruled out, though our data disfavor the latter. These observations add to the growing body of evidence for faint, complex extended structures beyond the bright disks of spiral galaxies. Based on data collected at the Subaru telescope, which is operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1469-1484
JournalAstronomical Journal
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2009


  • galaxies: evolution
  • galaxies: individual (M81)
  • galaxies: stellar content
  • galaxies: structure


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