Strong Nebular Line Ratios in the Spectra of z~2-3 Star-forming Galaxies: First Results from KBSS-MOSFIRE [GA]

We present initial results of a large near-IR spectroscopic survey covering the 15 fields of the Keck Baryonic Structure Survey (KBSS) using the recently-commissioned MOSFIRE instrument on the Keck 1 10m telescope. We focus on 179 galaxies with redshifts 2.0 < z < 2.6, most of which have high-quality MOSFIRE spectra in both H and K-band atmospheric windows, allowing sensitive measurements of [OIII]4960,5008, H-beta, [NII]6585, and H-alpha emission lines. We show unambiguously that the locus of z~2.3 galaxies in the “BPT” nebular diagnostic diagram exhibits an almost entirely disjoint, yet similarly tight, relationship between the line ratios [NII]/Halpha and [OIII]/Hbeta as compared to local galaxies. We argue that the offset of the z~2.3 BPT locus relative to that at z~0 is caused primarily by higher excitation (driven by both higher ionization parameter and harder stellar ionizing radiation field) than applies to most local galaxies. Also unlike nearby counterparts, a z~2.3 galaxy’s position along the BPT locus is surprisingly insensitive to gas-phase O/H. The observed emission line ratios are most easily reproduced by models in which the stellar ionizing radiation field has Teff=50000-60000 K, gas-phase O/H in the range 0.2 < Z/Zsun < 1.0, and gas-phase N/O close to solar. Such high sustained Teff are not easily produced by standard population synthesis models, but are expected if massive binaries and/or rapid stellar rotation are important for the evolution of main sequence O-stars in typical high-redshift galaxies. We assess the applicability of commonly-used strong line indices for estimating gas-phase metallicities of high redshift galaxies, as well as their likely systematic biases. The empirical correlation between M* and inferred metallicity (the “MZR”) at z~2.3 is as tight as for local galaxy samples, but is offset to lower metallicity (at all M*) by ~0.35 dex (abridged)

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C. Steidel, G. Rudie, A. Strom, et. al.
Thu, 22 May 14

Comments: 38 pages, 25 figures. Submitted to the Astrophysical Journal. Version with full-resolution figures available at this http URL