The revealing dust: Mid-infrared activity in Hickson compact group galaxy nuclei

S. C. Gallagher, K. E. Johnson, A. E. Hornschemeier, J. C. Charlton, J. E. Hibbard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


We present a sample of 46 galaxy nuclei from 12 nearby(z < 4500 kms _1)Hickson Compact Groups (HCGs) with a complete suite of 1-24 μm 2MASS + Spitzer nuclear photometry. For all objects in the sample, blue emission from stellar photospheres dominates in the near-infrared through the 3.6 μm IRAC band. Of 46 galaxy nuclei, 25 (54%) show red mid-infrared continua characteristic of hot dust powered by ongoing star formation and/or accretion onto a central black hole. We introduce αIRAC, the spectral index of a power-law fit to the 4.5-8.0 μm IRAC data, and demonstrate that it cleanly separates the mid-infrared-active and nonactive HCG nuclei. This parameter is more powerful for identifying low-to moderate-luminosity mid-infrared activity than other measures, which include data at rest-frame A < 3.6 μm that may be dominated by stellar photospheric emission. While the HCG galaxies clearly have a bimodal distribution in this parameter space, a comparison sample from the Spitzer Nearby Galaxy Survey (SINGS) matched in J-band total galaxy luminosity is continuously distributed. A second diagnostic, the fraction of 24 μm emission in excess of that expected from quiescent galaxies, f24D, reveals an additional three nuclei to be active at 24 μm. Comparing these two mid-infrared diagnostics of nuclear activity to optical spectroscopic identifications from the literature reveals some discrepancies, and we discuss the challenges of distinguishing the source of ionizing radiation in these and other lower luminosity systems. We find a significant correlation between the fraction of mid-infrared-active galaxies and the total H I mass in a group and investigate possible interpretations of these results in light of galaxy evolution in the highly interactive system of a compact group environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)730-741
Number of pages12
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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