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Searching for the end of the
cosmic dark ages with GMOS

From the Dark Ages to the Re-Ionization Era

Many fundamental transformations of matter and energy took place in the first billion years of our universe following the Big Bang. The earliest physical event we can explore is the “recombination era” when the temperature of the universe cooled to a few thousands degrees and all the free electrons in the universe merged with protons and helium nuclei. The result was the production of the neutral atoms of hydrogen and helium, the fundamental building blocks of the matter.

After recombination the universe entered a relatively quiet period called the “Dark Ages” (because no local source of radiative energy, such as stars or galaxies, had appeared yet). As the universe expanded, gravity drove the formation of ever-denser gas clouds, some of which eventually ignited to form the first generation of stars that ended the “Dark Ages.” Many, if not most, of these first stars were massive and hot and their copious ultraviolet radiation eventually split intergalactic hydrogen into its component electrons and protons in a process called “re-ionization.”

We can use galaxies and quasars at the highest accessible redshifts to probe this re-ionization era in two ways. First, their properties can tell us about the types of object that powered re-ionization, since they may belong to the same classes of object. Second, their spectral properties can be affected by partially neutral intergalactic gas, allowing us to measure the progress of re-ionization. Observations conducted by the Hubble Space Telescope, Keck, Subaru, the Very Large Telescope, and now Gemini Observatory indicate re-ionization was well advanced at a redshift greater than six, at a time when the universe was not quite a billion years old.

A team of U.S. astronomers led by James Rhoads from the Space Telescope Science Institute, reports the discovery of extremely high rates of star formation in one of the most distant known galaxies in the universe. LALA J142442.24+353400.2, named for the survey in which it was discovered and its celestial coordinates, lies at a redshift of 6.535, which puts it 12.8 billion light-years away and appearing as it looked some 850 million years after the Big Bang. This faint, distant galaxy is fabricating stars at a rate of more than 11 solar masses per year, a frenetic pace among galaxies at this distance and epoch in the early universe. Astronomers traced the galaxy’s starburst activity by measuring light emitted in the so-called Lyman-alpha emission line, using deep multi-object spectroscopy conducted at Gemini Observatory with GMOS-N and the Keck Observatory with the Deep Imaging Multi-object Spectrograph (Deimos).

The galaxy was first identified in the Large Area Lyman Alpha (“LALA”) survey, a deep imaging survey conducted at the Kitt Peak National Observatory using the CCD Mosaic-1 camera at the 4-meter Mayall Telescope (Figure 1). LALA is one of the largest surveys to search for very distant galaxies detected by their Lyman-alpha emission lines. Lyman-alpha arises from hydrogen gas that is ionized by hot, young stars in these galaxies. Such line-emitting galaxies are identified by comparing their images in narrow bandpass filters from the LALA survey to broad-band filter images from both LALA and the NOAO Deep Wide Field Survey (led by coauthors Buell Jannuzi and Arjun Dey).

Images courtesy the LALA survey

Figure 1. KPNO images in the broad z' filter (left) and 918 nm narrow-band filter (right) show that LALA J142442.24+353400.2 (circled) is much brighter in the narrow band image, where its light is dominated by the Lyman alpha emission line.

The properties of this line can be used to study the reionization process because neutral intergalactic hydrogen should scatter Lyman alpha light, hiding it from view in much the same way that a morning fog can obscure the Sun. The authors explore whether unusual effects in the gas within or around LALA J142442.24+353400.2 could facilitate the escape of Lyman-alpha emissions. For example, if the line is Doppler-shifted to longer wavelengths before it reaches the intergalactic gas (either by a drift velocity of the emitting galaxy or by interaction with gas internal to that galaxy), the intergalactic scattering can be reduced. Nonetheless, the properties of LALA J142442.24+353400.2 are most easily understood if the Universe is already mostly ionized at z = 6.5. A follow-on paper led by coauthor Sangeeta Malhotra strengthens this conclusion by showing that galaxies like LALA J142442.24+353400.2 are neither significantly rarer nor fainter than similar galaxies at lower redshifts.

Figure 2. Spectrum of LALA J142442.24+353400.2, obtained with the GMOS spectrograph on Gemini North. The solid histogram shows the measured flux; the dotted line shows the one-sigma flux uncertainties. The asymmetry of the line is clearly visible. There is no emission at 907.2 nm, where the [OIII] 495.9 nm line would be expected if the 916 nm feature was [OIII] 500.7 nm. The spectrum was obtained using the nod & shuffle technique that allows accurate subtraction of the contaminating sky emission lines.

See the related press release from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory at:

For more details, see the paper "A Luminous Lyman-alpha Emitting Galaxy at Redshift z = 6.535: Discovery and Spectroscopic Confirmation", by James E. Rhoads, Chun Xu, Steve Dawson, Arjun Dey, Sangeeta Malhotra, JunXian Wang, Buell T. Jannuzi, Hyron Spinrad and Daniel Stern, in The Astrophysical Journal, vol. 611, pp. 59-67, 10 August 2004.

Background Information on Gemini Observatory

The Gemini Observatory is an international collaboration that has built two identical 8-meter telescopes. The Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope is located on Mauna Kea, Hawai`i (Gemini North) and the Gemini South telescope is located on Cerro Pachón in central Chile (Gemini South), and hence provide full coverage of both hemispheres of the sky. Both telescopes incorporate new technologies that allow large, relatively thin mirrors under active control to collect and focus both optical and infrared radiation from space.

The Gemini Observatory provides the astronomical communities in each partner country with state-of-the-art astronomical facilities that allocate observing time in proportion to each country's contribution. In addition to financial support, each country also contributes significant scientific and technical resources. The national research agencies that form the Gemini partnership include: the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the UK Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), the Canadian National Research Council (NRC), the Chilean Comisión Nacional de Investigación Cientifica y Tecnológica (CONICYT), the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Argentinean Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) and the Brazilian Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq). The Observatory is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. The NSF also serves as the executive agency for the international partnership.