Reconciling observed and simulated stellar halo masses

Sanderson et al., available on arXiv

Abstract: We use cosmological hydrodynamical simulations of Milky-Way-mass galaxies from the FIRE project to evaluate various strategies for estimating the mass of a galaxy’s accreted stellar halo from deep, integrated-light images. We find good agreement with observations if we mimic observational methods to measure the mass of a stellar “halo” component, selecting stars via projected radius relative to the disk scale length or by their surface brightness. However, these observational methods systematically underestimate the true stellar halo mass, defined in the simulation as the mass of accreted stars formed outside of the host galaxy, by up to a factor of ten. Furthermore, these observational selection strategies introduce spurious dependencies on the stellar mass and size of galaxies that can obscure the trends predicted by cosmological simulations. This problem persists whether galaxies are viewed edge-on or face-on. We show that metallicity or color information may provide a solution. Absent additional data, we caution that estimates of stellar halo masses from images alone should be taken as lower limits.