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PR 24-1997: First look at a major transition period in the early Universe

PR 24-1997: First look at a major transition period in the early Universe

1 August 1997

New Observations of Intergalactic Helium Absorption Observations of the bright southern quasar HE 2347-4342 with telescopes at the ESO La Silla Observatory and with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope (HST) have provided a group of European astronomers1 with an exceptional glimpse into an early, still unexplored transition period of the Universe. At that time, many billions of years ago, some of the enormous gaseous clouds of hydrogen and helium left over from the Big Bang had not yet been fully ionized by the increasingly strong radiation from emerging galaxies and stars.

At that time, many billions of years ago, some of the enormous gaseous clouds of hydrogen and helium left over from the Big Bang had not yet been fully ionized by the increasingly strong radiation from emerging galaxies and stars.

In recent years astronomers have successfully looked back towards this period, but the new observations of HE 2347-4342 have now homed in on an important transitionary epoch during the evolution of the young Universe.

Searching for Clear Views Towards Bright Quasars

As has been the case for many other important scientific achievements, this observational breakthrough was preceded by a long and tedious period of careful preparatory work.

It began in 1989, when Dieter Reimers and his collaborators from the University of Hamburg (Germany) initiated a spectral survey of the entire southern sky with the 1-metre ESO Schmidt Telescope at La Silla. The aim was to find bright quasars, a rare class of remote galaxies with unusually bright and energetic centres. They would then be studied in greater detail with other, larger telescopes.

For this programme, a large objective prism is placed in front of the telescope, allowing the simultaneous recording on a large photographic plate of spectra of about 40 000 celestial objects in a 5° x 5° sky field. The plates are sent to Hamburg where they are scanned (digitized) in a microphotometer and automatically searched for spectra of quasars. Until now, more than 400 plates have been obtained.

One of the main goals of this vast programme is to find bright and distant quasars, in particular those whose light reaches us along relatively unobstructed paths. Or, in other words, those intrinsically bright and remote quasars which are located in directions where the Universe is unusually transparent for ultraviolet light.

With a clear view thus ensured, it would subsequently be possible to study such far-away objects and the intergalactic gas out there in unprecedented detail with large telescopes. The greater the distance, the longer has the light been underway, the longer is the look-back time and the earlier is the epoch about which we then obtain new information.

Discovery of a Unique Quasar

Altogether, more than 650 bright quasars have been discovered during this work so far.

In the course of six years, the Hamburg group has managed to find two objects that have a clear view and, in particular, are sufficiently distant to observe intergalactic helium in their lines of sight (only four such quasars are presently known). The very brightest of these is the quasar HE 2347-4342 in the southern constellation of Phoenix. Its redshift2 is so high that a specific helium-line in the far-ultraviolet spectral region is shifted into a wavelength region that is observable3.

Quasar HE 2347-4342

HE 2347-4342 was discovered in October 1995 by Lutz Wisotzki from the University of Hamburg; the HE stands for Hamburg-ESO. The visual magnitude is 16.1, that is only 10 000 times fainter than what can be seen with the naked eye; this makes it one of the apparently brightest quasars in the sky found so far. Still, it is quite distant - the measured redshift is z = 2.885. This places it at a distance that implies a look-back time of more than 80% of the age of the Universe. We thus observe it, as it was, just a few billion years after the Big Bang.

Being so bright in the sky and yet so distant means that HE 2347-4342 must be one of the intrinsically brightest objects in the Universe. In fact, it is no less than 1015 times more luminous than the Sun, or 10 000 times brighter than the entire Milky Way galaxy in which we live.

UV Spectrum of Quasar HE 2347-4342

Follow-up observations with the now decommissioned ESA/NASA International Ultraviolet Explorer satellite observatory showed that the light from this quasar travels a long way to us without being significantly absorbed in the ultraviolet spectral region. This is demonstrated inthe above image which shows its overall spectrum. Note in particular the intensity increase towards the ultraviolet part (to the left in the diagram) due to the unusually clear view in this direction.

New observations of HE 2347-4342 have now provided important information, not only about the quasar itself, but especially about the conditions in the surrounding intergalactic medium at this early time.

Early Evolution of the Universe

There is general agreement among most scientists that the Universe emanated from a hot and extremely dense initial state in the so-called Big Bang. Just three minutes later, the production of enormous quantities of hydrogen and helium nuclei of protons and neutrons came to an end.

Lots of free electrons were moving around and the numerous photons were scattered from these and the naked atomic nuclei. After some 100 000 years, the Universe had cooled down to a few thousand degrees and the nuclei and electrons combined to form atoms. The photons were then no longer scattered and the Universe became transparent. Cosmologists refer to this moment as the recombination epoch. The microwave background radiation we now observe from all directions gives a picture of the state of great homogeneity in the Universe at that epoch.

In the next phase the primeval atoms, more than 99% of which were of hydrogen and helium, moved together and began to form huge clouds from which galaxies and stars later emerged. When the first generation of stars and, somewhat later, of quasars, had formed, their intensive ultraviolet radiation began to knock off electrons from the hydrogen and helium atoms. Now the intergalactic gas again became ionized4 in steadily growing spheres around the ionizing sources. This is the so-called re-ionization epoch.

Is it possible to observe the re-ionization epoch directly?

It is believed that a sufficient number of energetic photons to cause re-ionization of most of the primeval hydrogen atoms in intergalactic space had become available at about the time when the first quasars were formed, that is when the Universe was less than 10% as old as it is now. This is in agreement with the observations made of the most remote quasars known that show that hydrogen had already been fully ionized at the time we observe them.

However, primeval helium atoms lost the first of their two electrons somewhat later than the hydrogen atoms lost their electron, and the second electron even later. This is because more energy is required to remove the electrons from the helium atom than from a hydrogen atom and because both stars and quasars emit fewer photons at higher energies5. Thus, neutral helium atoms in space, formed at the recombination epoch, would survive longer than the hydrogen atoms, and once ionized, the resulting singly ionized helium (He+) would survive even longer. The ionization of helium is therefore delayed as compared to hydrogen.

But for how long? In particular, would He-atoms or He+-ions be around long enough that we would still be able to see pockets of primeval, neutral or singly ionized helium at about the same epoch that we observe some of the most remote quasars?

Helium clouds near HE 2347-4342

This long-standing question can now be answered affirmatively.

Astronomers had previously detected clouds of He+-ions in intergalactic space towards three other quasars[3] . Two of these objects are more distant than HE 2347-4342 and one is closer to us. While the two remote objects show very strong He+-absorption, the closer one shows weaker absorption - suggesting that the intergalactic helium has evolved rapidly in the time span that corresponds to the redshifts probed. In HE 2347-4342, whose redshift is intermediate between those of the previous detections, we now observe for the first time the patchiness of the intergalactic matter at the exact time of this major transition phase in the Universe.

The observations of HE 2347-4342 that lead to this important result were difficult and have involved no less than seven different ground- and space-based telescopes.

The new observations of HE 2347-4342

Singly ionized helium ions absorb far-ultraviolet radiation at a rest wavelength of 304 Å. If a cloud with such ions is present in the same space region as the quasar HE 2347-4342 (and thus at the time when the light we now observe was emitted by the quasar), they will manifest their presence by an absorption line (a dip' in intensity) in the quasar spectrum. Because of the redshift, this line will be seen bluewards of 1180 Å in the far-ultraviolet region[2].

In June 1996, the Hubble Space Telescope was pointed towards this quasar and good recordings of its ultraviolet spectrum were obtained during no less than 13 orbital periods by means of the FOS and GHRS instruments. Thanks to the unusual brightness of HE 2347-4342 and the comparatively clear view in this direction, the complex nature of the 304 Å He+-line absorption in foreground matter could be detected in unprecedented detail. The observed line structure shows adjacent regions of both very high and low absorption - indicative of an intergalactic medium undergoing the final stage of re-ionization in the highly uneven manner expected if quasar radiation is responsible for the re-ionization.

Before any quantitative conclusions could be drawn, however, the same absorbing media had to be observed in the hydrogen absorption line with a rest wavelength of 1215 Å (also known as Lyman-alpha). This was successfully accomplished in October 1996 by Susanne Koehler of the Hamburg group who obtained a high-resolution spectrum of the redshifted hydrogen line near 4720 Å during 9 hours exposure time using the CASPEC instrument at the ESO 3.6 m telescope at La Silla.

Both of these observations are near the limit of what is possible with current instruments.

Comparing the space distribution of hydrogen and helium near HE 2347-4342

Spectra showing Quasar and Clouds Along Line-of-Sight

When the optical data were compared with the ultraviolet data, the spectral dependance of the hydrogen and the He+-ion absorption was seen to be quite different.

When aligning those portions of the quasar spectrum that correspond to the same redshifts for hydrogen and helium, respectively, and therefore the same clouds along the line-of-sight (see image above), it is obvious that there are large regions of space in which there are many helium ions (100% absorption in the 304 Å line), but only very few hydrogen atoms (very little absorption in the 1215 Å line). This is well demonstrated by the presence of deep 'troughs' in the spectral region between 1160 and 1170 Å, and 1176 and 1182 Å. Contrarily, there are other spectral regions, for example near 1160 Å and 1174-75 Å, where the absorption is low for both species; they correspond to 'voids' in which little absorbing matter is present.

A more detailed, quantitative study of these spectra confirms that the second ionization of the helium in the intergalactic medium is indeed incomplete in huge regions of space at this early epoch. By absorbing the quasar light at the wavelengths that correspond to the 304 Å line at their individual redshifts, the regions with He+-ions manifest themselves as the broad troughs seen in the spectrum of HE 2347-4342. Their width, in terms of wavelength- and thus redshift-interval, corresponds to a spatial size of up to 7 Megaparsecs (about 25 million light-years). They are indeed enormous.

In these regions, singly ionized helium is dominant. Still there need not to be very much; an extremely thin intergalactic medium (only 1/10.000 of the critical density needed to stop the expansion of the Universe) is sufficient to cause 100% spectral absorption.

Implications of this Discovery

This first, direct observation of the late stages of the epoch of reionization is an important step forward in our understanding of the thermal history of the Universe. Theoretical modelling based on such data should allow to identify more precisely the still unknown epoch when the first galaxies and quasars began to light up and thereby to ionize the intergalactic gas left over from the Big Bang.

Quite apart from this, this observation of the epoch of reionization also provides yet another confirmation of standard Big Bang cosmology.

Where to find Additional Information

The detailed results of the investigation described in this Press Release are contained in a scientific paper that will appear in the scientific journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.


1 The group consists of Dieter Reimers, Susanne Koehler, Lutz Wisotzki of the Hamburg University, and several others.

2 In astronomy, the redshift denotes the fraction by which the lines in the spectrum of an object are shifted towards longer wavelengths. The observed redshift of a distant galaxy or quasar gives a direct estimate of the universal expansion. Since this expansion rate increases with the distance, the velocity is itself a function (the Hubble relation) of the distance to the object.

The observed wavelength of a spectral line emitted in an object at redshift z is (1 + z) times the rest wavelength. For instance, the helium ion absorption line in an intergalactic cloud comoving with the quasar HE 2347-4342 will be observed at (1 + 2.885) x 304 Å = 1181 Å. This far-ultraviolet spectral region is not accessible with ground-based telescopes, but may be observed from above the atmosphere with the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.

3 Prior to this discovery, the Hamburg group had discovered - between 1989 and 1994 - three other bright and distant quasars with relatively clear lines of sight which have also been observed with the Hubble Space Telescope. Although none of them is distant enough to allow the detection of intergalactic He+ with HST, He+-absorption towards one of these objects, HS 1700+6416 was detected by the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope during NASA's Astro-2 mission in 1995. The first detection of intergalactic He+ was made in 1994 by a group of European astronomers in the quasar Q0302-002.

4 An ion is an atom that has lost one or more of its electrons.

5 The ionization potential of hydrogen is 13.6 electron volt (eV), of neutral helium, 24.6 eV, and of singly ionized helium, 54.4 eV. In order to ionize the primordial hydrogen and helium atoms, photons of the indicated energies must be emitted by the first galaxies and stars. The corresponding photon wavelengths, all in the far-ultraviolet spectral region, are 912 Å, 504 Å and 228 Å, respectively. The (Planck-)temperatures required are of the order of 32 000 K, 58 000 K and 127 000 K, respectively, which shows that the second ionization of helium cannot be done by the radiation from stars - they are not sufficiently hot. Thus He+-ions can only be ionized by the radiation from quasars.

Last Update: 1 September 2019
13-Jun-2024 19:27 UT

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