A Census of Nuclear Stellar Disks in Early-Type Galaxies
Bastos Martins Ledo, Hugo
In this thesis we explored the use of nuclear stellar discs as tracers of the merging history of early-type galaxies. These small structures, just a few tens to a few hundreds of parsecs across, are a common but poorly studied feature of early-type galaxies. They are formed during or shortly after merging events due to the infall of gas, which settles in a disc and leads to the formation of new stars. Initial simulations showed that they should not survive a following major merger and could, therefore, be used to trace the epoch when their host galaxies experienced their last major merger event. We produced the first census of nuclear discs and established that their incidence is 20%, fairly independent of the host-galaxy mass or galactic environment. Furthermore, we have more than doubled the sample of nuclear discs with known photometric properties, finding that they give a hint of possessing different characteristics from those of large, galactic discs. Using these nuclear discs as clocks for the assembly history of galaxies requires dating their stellar populations. By combining the use of integral-field spectroscopy with the a priori knowledge of the relative bulge- and disc-light contribution to the observed spectra, as determined by a photometric disc-bulge decomposition, we have shown that it is possible to reduce the degeneracies that affect the study of two superimposed populations and thus that the age of stellar discs can be measured more precisely. To illustrate our method, we present VLT-VIMOS data for NGC 4458, a low-mass slowly rotating early-type galaxy with a disc that we found to be at least 5-6 Gyr old. The presence of such an old central disc in such a small, slowly-rotating and, mostly likely, round galaxy is particularly puzzling and presents a challenge to existing models. Disc fragility is central to our studies and we have expanded the limited initial simulations to study it in more detail. By means of N-body simulations, we have reproduced the final stages of a galaxy encounter by exposing a nuclear disc rotating in the gravitational potential of its host bulge and central supermassive black hole to the impact of a secondary massive black hole. We explored not only major mergers (1:1 mass ratio), but also large minor mergers (1:5 and 1:10), across a variety of collision angles, and assessed the survival of the disc, as perceived by current observational limits, both for photometry and spectroscopy. As expected, the discs do not survive a major merger whereas it is in general possible to detect their presence after a 1:5 or 1:10 encounter, in particular when looking at kinematic signatures with spectroscopy. This thesis has demonstrated that nuclear discs constitute both a common and accurate tool for constraining the assembling history of nearby early-type galaxies. The advent of more sensitive integral-field spectrographs, such as MUSE, will make measuring the stellar age of nuclear discs not only more precise, but also more economical in terms of telescope time. This will allow embarking on a more systematic age dating campaign for nuclear stellar discs across a wider range of type, mass and galactic environments for their host galaxies. Combining such a census with a larger set of numerical simulations aimed at calibrating better the range of merger event that would erase any photometric or kinematic signature of a nuclear disc, should finally allow us to put firm constraints on the merging history of early-type galaxies.