The optical color distributions of globular clusters (GCs) in most large elliptical galaxies are bimodal. Based on the assumed linear relationship between GC colors and their metallicities, the bimodality has been taken as evidence of two GC subsystems with different metallicities in each galaxy and has led to a number of theories in the context of galaxy formation. More recent observations and modeling of GCs, however, suggests that the color-metallicity relations (CMRs) are inflected, and thus colors likely trace metallicities in a nonlinear manner. The nonlinearity could produce bimodal color distributions from a broad underlying metallicity spread, even if it is unimodal. Despite the far-reaching implications, whether CMRs are nonlinear and whether the nonlinearity indeed causes the color bimodality are still open questions. Given that the spectroscopic refinement of CMRs is still very challenging, we here propose a new photometric technique to probe the possible nonlinear nature of CMRs. In essence, a color distribution of GCs is a "projected" distribution of their metallicities. Since the form of CMRs hinges on which color is used, the shape of color distributions varies depending significantly on the colors. Among other optical colors, the u-band related colors (e.g., u - g and u - z) are theoretically predicted to exhibit significantly less inflected CMRs than other preferred CMRs (e.g., for g - z). As a case study, we performed the Hubble Space Telescope (HST)/WFPC2 archival u-band photometry for the M87 (NGC 4486) GC system with confirmed color bimodality. We show that the u-band color distributions are significantly different from that of g - z and consistent with our model predictions. With more u-band measurements, this method will support or rule out the nonlinear CMR scenario for the origin of GC color bimodality with high confidence. The HST/WFC3 observations in F336W for nearby large elliptical galaxies are highly anticipated in this regard.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Astronomy and Astrophysics
- Space and Planetary Science