This plot shows the locations of 150 blazars (green dots) used in the a new by the Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope. Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration
All the light that has been produced by every star that has ever existed is still out there, but “seeing” it and measuring it precisely is extremely difficult. Now, astronomers using data from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope were able to look at distant blazars to help measure the background light from all the stars that are shining now and ever were. This enabled the most accurate measurement of starlight throughout the universe, which in turn helps establish limits on the total number of stars that have ever shone.
“The optical and ultraviolet light from stars continues to travel throughout the universe even after the stars cease to shine, and this creates a fossil radiation field we can explore using gamma rays from distant sources,” said lead scientist Marco Ajello from the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University in California and the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley.
Their results also provide a stellar density in the cosmos of about 1.4 stars per 100 billion cubic light-years, which means the average distance between stars in the universe is about 4,150 light-years.
The total sum of starlight in the cosmos is called the extragalactic background light (EBL), and Ajello and his team investigated the EBL by studying gamma rays from 150 blazars, which are among the most energetic phenomena in the universe. They are galaxies powered by extremely energetic black holes: they have energies greater than 3 billion electron volts (GeV), or more than a billion times the energy of visible light.
The astronomers used four years of Fermi data on gamma rays with energies above 10 billion electron volts (GeV), and the Fermi Large Area Telescope (LAT) instrument is the first to detect more than 500 sources in this energy range.
To gamma rays, the EBL functions as a kind of cosmic fog, but Fermi measured the amount of gamma-ray absorption in blazar spectra produced by ultraviolet and visible starlight at three different epochs in the history of the universe.
Fermi measured the amount of gamma-ray absorption in blazar spectra produced by ultraviolet and visible starlight at three different epochs in the history of the universe. (Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)
“With more than a thousand detected so far, blazars are the most common sources detected by Fermi, but gamma rays at these energies are few and far between, which is why it took four years of data to make this analysis,” said team member Justin Finke, an astrophysicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington.
Gamma rays produced in blazar jets travel across billions of light-years to Earth. During their journey, the gamma rays pass through an increasing fog of visible and ultraviolet light emitted by stars that formed throughout the history of the universe.
Occasionally, a gamma ray collides with starlight and transforms into a pair of particles — an electron and its antimatter counterpart, a positron. Once this occurs, the gamma ray light is lost. In effect, the process dampens the gamma ray signal in much the same way as fog dims a distant lighthouse.
From studies of nearby blazars, scientists have determined how many gamma rays should be emitted at different energies. More distant blazars show fewer gamma rays at higher energies — especially above 25 GeV — thanks to absorption by the cosmic fog.
The researchers then determined the average gamma-ray attenuation across three distance ranges: The closest group was from when the universe was 11.2 years old, a middle group of when the Universe was 8.6 billion years old, and the farthest group from when the Universe was 4.1 billion years old.
This animation tracks several gamma rays through space and time, from their emission in the jet of a distant blazar to their arrival in Fermi’s Large Area Telescope (LAT). During their journey, the number of randomly moving ultraviolet and optical photons (blue) increases as more and more stars are born in the universe. Eventually, one of the gamma rays encounters a photon of starlight and the gamma ray transforms into an electron and a positron. The remaining gamma-ray photons arrive at Fermi, interact with tungsten plates in the LAT, and produce the electrons and positrons whose paths through the detector allows astronomers to backtrack the gamma rays to their source.
From this measurement, the scientists were able to estimate the fog’s thickness.
“These results give you both an upper and lower limit on the amount of light in the Universe and the amount of stars that have formed,” said Finke during a press briefing today. “Previous estimates have only been an upper limit.”
And the upper and lower limits are very close to each other, said Volker Bromm, an astronomer at the University of Texas, Austin, who commented on the findings. “The Fermi result opens up the exciting possibility of constraining the earliest period of cosmic star formation, thus setting the stage for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope,” he said. “In simple terms, Fermi is providing us with a shadow image of the first stars, whereas Webb will directly detect them.”
Measuring the extragalactic background light was one of the primary mission goals for Fermi, and Ajello said the findings are crucial for helping to answer a number of big questions in cosmology.
A paper describing the findings was published Thursday on Science Express.
Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today’s Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT’s Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is the author of the new book “Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” She is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.