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The nearby grand design spiral galaxy, M 51, is an obvious proving ground for studies of spiral structure and large scale star formation processes. New near--infrared observations of M 51 made with COB (Cryogenic Optical Bench) on the Kitt Peak 1.3m allow us to examine the stellar distribution and the young star formation regions as well as probe regions of high extinction such as dust lanes. We also present an analysis of the kinematics of the ionized gas observed with the Maryland--Caltech Imaging Fabry Perot.
The color information we derive from the near--infrared bands provides a more accurate tracer of extinction than optical observations. We find that the dust extinction and CO emission in the arms are well correlated. Our kinematic data show unambiguously that these dense gas concentrations are associated with kinematic perturbations. In the inner disk, these perturbations are seen to be consistent with the streaming motions predicted by classical density wave theory. The dust lanes, and presumably the molecular arms, form a narrow ridge that matches these velocity perturbations wherever the viewing angle is appropriate. This interpretation requires that the corotation radius be inward of the outer tidal arms. The outer tidal arms however show streaming velocities of the sign that would be expected interior to the corotation point. This can be reconciled if the outer arms are part of a second spiral pattern, most likely due to the interaction with the companion NGC 5195.
The near--infrared observations also show emission from the massive star forming regions. These observations are less affected by extinction than optical observations of H II regions and show clearly that the sites of massive star formation are correlated with but downstream from the concentrations of dense molecular material. This provides clear evidence that the ISM has been organized by the streaming motions which have in turn triggered massive star formation.
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