We present color-magnitude and morphological analysis of 54 low-redshift ultraluminous infrared galaxies (ULIRGs; 0.018 < z < 0.265 with z median = 0.151), a subset of the Infrared Astronomical Satellite 1 Jy sample, in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). The ULIRGs are both bright and blue: they are on average 1 mag brighter in than the SDSS galaxies within the same redshift range, and 0.2 mag bluer in 0.1 g – 0.1 r. They form a group in the color-magnitude diagram distinct from both the red sequence and the blue cloud formed by the SDSS galaxies: 24 out of the 52 unsaturated objects (~46%) lie outside the 90% level number density contour of the SDSS galaxies. The majority (47, or ~87%) have the colors typical of the blue cloud, and only four (~7%) sources are located in the red sequence. While ULIRGs are popularly thought to be precursors to a QSO phase, we find few (three, or ~6%) in the "green valley" where the majority of the X-ray- and IR-selected active galactic nuclei (AGNs) are found. Moreover, none of the AGN-host ULIRGs are found in the green valley. For the 14 previously spectroscopic identified AGNs (~28%), we perform point-spread function subtractions and find that on average the central point sources contribute less than one-third to the total luminosity, and that their high optical luminosities and overall blue colors are apparently the result of star formation activity of the host galaxies. Visual inspection of the SDSS images reveals a wide range of morphologies including many close pairs, tidal tails, and otherwise disturbed profiles, in strong support of previous studies and the general view of ULIRGs as major mergers of gas-rich disk galaxies. A detailed morphology analysis using Gini and M 20 coefficients shows that slightly less than one-half (~42% in g band) of the ULIRGs are located in the merger region defined by morphology studies of local galaxies, while the remaining sources are located in the region of late-type and irregular galaxies. The heterogeneous distribution of ULIRGs in the G-M 20 space is qualitatively consistent with the results found by numerical simulations of disk-disk mergers, and our study also shows that the measured morphological parameters are systematically affected by the signal-to-noise ratio and thus the merging galaxies can appear in various regions of the G-M 20 parameter space. We briefly discuss the origins of the uncertainties and note that the morphology measurements should be implemented with caution for low physical resolution images. In general, our results reinforce the view that ULIRGs contain young stellar populations and are mergers in progress, but we do not observe the concentration of ULIRGs/AGN in the green valley as found by other studies. Our study provides a uniform comparison sample for studying dusty starbursts at higher redshifts such as Spitzer MIPS 24 μm-selected ULIRGs at z = 1-2 or submillimeter galaxies.
The Astrophysical Journal