We use archival Hubble Space Telescope observations of broad-band images from the ultraviolet (F255W-filter) through the near infrared (NICMOS F160W-filter) to study the star cluster population of the interacting spiral galaxy M 51. We obtain age, mass, extinction, and effective radius estimates for 1152 star clusters in a region of ∼7.3 × 8.1 kpc centered on the nucleus and extending into the outer spiral arms. In this paper we present the data set and exploit it to determine the age distribution and relationships among the fundamental parameters (i.e. age, mass, effective radius). We show the critical dependence of the age distribution on the sample selection, and confirm that using a constant mass cut-off, above which the sample is complete for the entire age range of interest, is essential. In particular, in this sample we are complete only for masses above 5 × 104 M ⊙ for the last 1 Gyr. Using this dataset we find: i) that the cluster formation rate seems to have had a large increase ∼50-70 Myr ago, which is coincident with the suggested second passage of its companion, NGC 5195; ii) a large number of extremely young (<10 Myr) star clusters, which we interpret as a population of unbound clusters of which a large majority will disrupt within the next ≈10 Myr; and iii) that the distribution of cluster sizes can be well approximated by a power-law with exponent, -η = -2.2 ± 0.2, which is very similar to that of Galactic globular clusters, indicating that cluster disruption is largely independent of cluster radius. In addition, we have used this dataset to search for correlations among the derived parameters. In particular, we do not find any strong trends between the age and mass, mass and effective radius, nor between the galactocentric distance and effective radius. There is, however, a strong correlation between the age of a cluster and its extinction, with younger clusters being more heavily reddened than older clusters.
- galaxies: individual: M 51
- galaxies: star clusters