Clustering of stars in nearby galaxies: probing the range of stellar structures
Most stars form in groups, and these clusters are themselves nestled within larger associations and stellar complexes. It is not yet clear, however, whether stars cluster on preferred size scales within galaxies, or if stellar groupings have a continuous size distribution. I have developed two methods to select stellar groupings across a wide range of size-scales in order to assess trends in the size distribution and other basic properties of stellar groupings. The first method uses visual inspection of color-magnitude and color-color diagrams of clustered stars to assess whether the compact sources within the potential association are coeval, and thus likely to be born from the same parentmolecular cloud. This method was developed using the stellar associations in the M51/NGC 5195 interacting galaxy system. This process is highly effective at selecting single-aged stellar associations, but in order to assess properties of stellar clustering in a larger sample of nearby galaxies, an automated method for selecting stellar groupings is needed. I have developed an automated stellar grouping selection method that is sensitive to stellar clustering on all size scales. Using the Source Extractor software package on Gaussian-blurred images of NGC 4214, and the annular surface brightness to determine the characteristic size of each cluster/association, I eliminate much of the size and density biases intrinsic to other methods. This automated method was tested in the nearby dwarf irregular galaxy NGC 4214, and can detect stellar groupings with sizes ranging from compact clusters to stellar complexes. In future work, the automatic selection method developed in this dissertation will be used to identify stellar groupings in a set of nearby galaxies to determine if the size scales for stellar clustering are uniform in the nearby universe or if it is dependent on local galactic environment. Once the stellar clusters and associations have been identified and age-dated, this information can be used to deduce disruption times from the age distribution as a function of the position of the stellar grouping within the galaxy, the size of the cluster or association, and the morphological type of the galaxy. The implications of these results for galaxy formation and evolution are discussed.