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Published December 20, 2011 | Published
Journal Article Open

Very Strong Emission-line Galaxies in the WFC3 Infrared Spectroscopic Parallel Survey and Implications for High-redshift Galaxies


The WFC3 Infrared Spectroscopic Parallel Survey uses the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) infrared grism capabilities to obtain slitless spectra of thousands of galaxies over a wide redshift range including the peak of star formation history of the universe. We select a population of very strong emission-line galaxies with rest-frame equivalent widths (EWs) higher than 200 Å. A total of 176 objects are found over the redshift range 0.35 < z < 2.3 in the 180 arcmin^2 area that we have analyzed so far. This population consists of young and low-mass starbursts with high specific star formation rates (sSFR). After spectroscopic follow-up of one of these galaxies with Keck/Low Resolution Imaging Spectrometer, we report the detection at z = 0.7 of an extremely metal-poor galaxy with 12 + log(O/H) =7.47 ± 0.11. After estimating the active galactic nucleus fraction in the sample, we show that the high-EW galaxies have higher sSFR than normal star-forming galaxies at any redshift. We find that the nebular emission lines can substantially affect the total broadband flux density with a median brightening of 0.3 mag, with some examples of line contamination producing brightening of up to 1 mag. We show that the presence of strong emission lines in low-z galaxies can mimic the color-selection criteria used in the z ~ 8 dropout surveys. In order to effectively remove low-redshift interlopers, deep optical imaging is needed, at least 1 mag deeper than the bands in which the objects are detected. Without deep optical data, most of the interlopers cannot be ruled out in the wide shallow HST imaging surveys. Finally, we empirically demonstrate that strong nebular lines can lead to an overestimation of the mass and the age of galaxies derived from fitting of their spectral energy distribution (SED). Without removing emission lines, the age and the stellar mass estimates are overestimated by a factor of 2 on average and up to a factor of 10 for the high-EW galaxies. Therefore, the contribution of emission lines should be systematically taken into account in SED fitting of star-forming galaxies at all redshifts.

Additional Information

© 2011 The American Astronomical Society. Received 2011 July 8; accepted 2011 September 3; published 2011 November 29. Based on observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., under NASA contract NAS 5-26555. These observations are associated with programs 11696 and 12283. Some of the data presented herein were obtained at the W. M. Keck Observatory, which is operated as a scientific partnership among the California Institute of Technology, the University of California, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Observatory was made possible by the generous financial support of the W. M. Keck Foundation. We thank the anonymous referee for very useful comments that improved the content and the clarity of the paper, and Ranga-Ram Chary and Yuko Kakazu for interesting discussions. We thank Martin Kümmel, Harald Kuntschner, Jeremy Walsh, Howard Bushouse, and the staff members of the Space Telescope Institute for their help with the data reduction. We also wish to recognize and acknowledge the very significant cultural role and reverence that the summit of Mauna Kea has always had within the indigenous Hawaiian community. We are most fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct observations from this mountain.

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Published - Atek2011p16926Astrophys_J.pdf


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