The effect of spatial resolution on optical and near-IR studies of stellar clusters: Implications for the origin of the red excess
Recent ground based near-IR studies of stellar clusters in nearby galaxies have suggested that young clusters remain embedded for 7-10Myr in their progenitor molecular cloud, in conflict with optical based studies which find that clusters are exposed after 1-3Myr. Here, we investigate the role that spatial resolution plays in this apparent conflict. We use a recent catalogue of young ($<10$~Myr) massive ($>5000$~\msun) clusters in the nearby spiral galaxy, M83, along with Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imaging in the optical and near-IR, and ground based near-IR imaging, to see how the colours (and hence estimated properties such as age and extinction) are affected by the aperture size employed, in order to simulate studies of differing resolution. We find that the near-IR is heavily affected by the resolution, and when aperture sizes $>40$~pc are used, all young/blue clusters move red-ward in colour space, which results in their appearance as heavily extincted clusters. However, this is due to contamination from nearby sources and nebular emission, and is not an extinction effect. Optical colours are much less affected by resolution. Due to the larger affect of contamination in the near-IR, we find that, in some cases, clusters will appear to show near-IR excess when large ($>20$~pc) apertures are used. Our results explain why few young ($<6$~Myr), low extinction ($\av < 1$~mag) clusters have been found in recent ground based near-IR studies of cluster populations, while many such clusters have been found in higher resolution HST based studies. Additionally, resolution effects appear to (at least partially) explain the origin of the near-IR excess that has been found in a number of extragalactic YMCs.