Cosmic Void Contains Fewer Galaxies than Expected, which, Ironically, Makes it Harder for Light to get Through

According to the Big Bang Theory of cosmology, the Universe began roughly 13.8 billion years ago as all matter in the Universe began to expand from a single point of infinite density. Over the next few billion years, the fundamental forces of the Universe began to separate from each other and subatomic particles and atoms formed. In time, this first stars and galaxies formed, giving rise to the large-scale structure of the Universe.

However, it was only by roughly 1 billion years after the Big Bang that the Universe began to become transparent. By about 12 billion years ago, intergalactic space was filled with gas that was much less transparent than it is now, with variations from place to place. To address why this was, a team of astronomers recently used the world’s largest telescope to search for galaxies of young stars in a huge volume of space.

The study which details their findings recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal under the title “Evidence for Large-scale Fluctuations in the Metagalactic Ionizing Background Near Redshift Six“. The study was led by George D. Becker, a professor of astrophysics at the University of California Riverside, and included members from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

This illustration shows the evolution of the Universe, from the Big Bang on the left, to modern times on the right. Credit: NASA

For the sake of their study, the team used the Subaru Telescope – the world’s largest telescope, located at the Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii – to examine a 500 million light-year volume of space as it existed roughly 12 billion years ago. Using this data, the team considered two possible models that could account for the variations in transparency that astronomers have been seeing during this cosmic epoch.

On the one hand, if the region contained a small number of galaxies, the team would conclude that startlight could not penetrate very far through the intergalactic gas. On the other hand, if it contained an unusually large number of galaxies, this would indicate that the region had cooled significantly over the previous several hundred million years. Prior to their observations, Beck and his team were expecting to find that it was the latter.

However, what they found was that the region contained far fewer galaxies than expected – which indicated that the opaqueness of the region was due to a lack of starlight. As Steven Furlanetto, a UCLA professor of astronomy and a co-author of the research, explained in a recent UCLA press release:

“It was a rare case in astronomy where two competing models, both of which were compelling in their own way, offered precisely opposite predictions, and we were lucky that those predictions were testable… It is not that the opacity is a cause of the lack of galaxies. Instead, it’s the other way around.”

In addition to addressing an enduring mystery in astronomy, this study also has implications for our understanding of how the Universe evolved over time. According to our current cosmological models, the period that took place roughly 380,000 t0 150 million years after the Big Bang is known as the “Dark Ages”. Most of the photons in the Universe were interacting with electrons and protons at this time, which means radiation from this period is undetectable by our current instruments.

However, by about 1 billion years after the Big Bang, the first stars and galaxies had formed. It is further believed that ultraviolet light from these first galaxies filled the Universe and is what allowed for the gas in deep space to become transparent. This would have occurred earlier in regions with more galaxies, the astronomers concluded, hence why there are variations in transparency.

In short, if more ultraviolet radiation from galaxies would lead to greater transparency in the early Universe, then the existence of fewer nearby galaxies would cause certain regions to be murkier. In the future, Becker and his team hope to further study this region of space and others like it in the hope that it will reveal clues about how the first galaxies illuminated the Universe during that early period, which remains a subject of inquiry at this point.

This research is also expected to shed more light on how the early Universe evolved, gradually giving rise to the one that are familiar with today. And as next-generation instruments are able to probe deeper into space (and hence, further back in time), we just may come to understand how existence as we know it all unfolded.

Further Reading: UCLA, The Astrophysical Journal

New Study Says a Fast Radio Burst Happens Every Second in the Universe

When astronomers first noted the detection of a Fast Radio Burst (FRB) in 2007 (aka. the Lorimer Burst), they were both astounded and intrigued. This high-energy burst of radio pulses, which lasted only a few milliseconds, appeared to be coming from outside of our galaxy. Since that time, astronomers have found evidence of many FRBs in previously-recorded data, and are still speculating as to what causes them.

Thanks to subsequent discoveries and research, astronomers now know that FRBs are far more common than previously thought. In fact, according to a new study by a team of researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), FRBs may occur once every second within the observable Universe. If true, FRBs could be a powerful tool for researching the origins and evolution of the cosmos.

The study, titled “A Fast Radio Burst Occurs Every Second throughout the Observable Universe“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The study was led by Anastasia Fialkov, a postdoc researcher and Fellow at the CfA’s Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC). She was joined by Professor Abraham Loeb, the director of the ITC and the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard.

As noted, FRBs have remained something of a mystery since they were first discovered. Not only do their causes remain unknown, but much about their true nature is still not understood. As Dr. Fialkov told Universe Today via email:

“FRBs (or fast radio bursts) are astrophysical signals of an undetermined nature. The observed bursts are short (or millisecond duration), bright pulses in the radio part of the electromagnetic spectrum (at GHz frequencies). Only 24 bursts have been observed so far and we still do not know for sure which physical processes trigger them. The most plausible explanation is that they are launched by rotating magnetized neutron stars. However, this theory is to be confirmed.”

For the sake of their study, Fialkov and Loeb relied on observations made by multiple telescopes of the repeating fast radio burst known as FRB 121102. This FRB was first observed in 2012 by researchers using the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and has since been confirmed to be coming from a galaxy located 3 billion light years away in the direction of the Auriga constellation.

Since it was discovered, additional bursts have been detected coming from its location, making FRB 121102 the only known example of a repeating FRB. This repetitive nature has also allowed astronomers to conduct more detailed studies of it than any other FRB. As Prof. Loeb told Universe Today via email, these and other reasons made it an ideal target for their study:

“FRB 121102 is the only FRB for which a host galaxy and a distance were identified. It is also the only repeating FRB source from which we detected hundreds of FRBs by now. The radio spectrum of its FRBs is centered on a characteristic frequency and not covering a very broad band. This has important implications for the detectability of such FRBs, because in order to find them the radio observatory needs to be tuned to their frequency.”

Image of the sky where the radio burst FRB 121102 was found, in the constellation Auriga. You can see its location with a green circle. At left is supernova remnant S147 and at right, a star formation area called IC 410. Credit: Rogelio Bernal Andreo (DeepSkyColors.com)

Based on what is known about FRB 121102, Fialkov and Loeb conducted a series of calculations that assumed that it’s behavior was representative of all FRBs. They then projected how many FRBs would exist across the entire sky and determined that within the observable Universe, a FRB would likely be taking place once every second. As Dr. Fialkov explained:

“Assuming that FRBs are produced by galaxies of a particular type (e.g., similar to FRB 121102) we can calculate how many FRBs have to be produced by each galaxy to explain the existing observations (i.e., 2000 per sky per day). With this number in mind we can infer the production rate for the entire population of galaxies. This calculation shows that an FRB occurs every second when accounting for all the faint events.”

While the exact nature and origins of FRBs are still unknown – suggestions include rotating neutron stars and even alien intelligence! – Fialkov and Loeb indicate that they could be used to study the structure and evolution of the Universe. If indeed they occur with such regular frequency throughout the cosmos, then more distant sources could act as probes which astronomers would then rely on to plumb the depths of space.

For instance, over vast cosmic distances, there is a significant amount of intervening material that makes it difficult for astronomers to study the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) – the leftover radiation from the Big Bang. Studies of this intervening material could lead to a new estimates of just how dense space is – i.e. how much of it is composed of ordinary matter, dark matter, and dark energy – and how rapidly it is expanding.

Gemini composite image of the field around FRB 121102, the only repeating FRB discovered so far. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA/NSF/NRC

And as Prof. Loeb indicated, FRBs could also be used to explore enduring cosmlogical questions, like how the “Dark Age” of the Universe ended:

“FRBs can be used to measure the column of free electrons towards their source. This can be used to measure the density of ordinary matter between galaxies in the present-day universe. In addition, FRBs at early cosmic times can be used to find out when the ultraviolet light from the first stars broke up the primordial atoms of hydrogen left over from the Big Bang into their constituent electrons and protons.”

The “Dark Age”, which occurred between 380,000 and 150 million years after the Big Bang, was characterized by a “fog” of hydrogen atoms interacting with photons. As a result of this, the radiation of this period is undetectable by our current instruments. At present, scientists are still attempting to resolve how the Universe made the transition between these “Dark Ages” and subsequent epochs when the Universe was filled with light.

This period of “reionization”, which took place 150 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang, was when the first stars and quasars formed. It is generally believed that UV light from the first stars in the Universe traveled outwards to ionize the hydrogen gas (thus clearing the fog). A recent study also suggested that black holes that existed in the early Universe created the necessary “winds” that allowed this ionizing radiation to escape.

To this end, FRBs could be used to probe into this early period of the Universe and determine what broke down this “fog” and allowed light to escape. Studying very distant FRBs could allow scientists to study where, when and how this process of “reionization” occurred. Looking ahead, Fialkov and Loeb explained how future radio telescopes will be able to discover many FRBs.

The planned Square Kilometer Array will be the world’s largest radio telescope when it begins operations in 2018. Credit: SKA

“Future radio observatories, like the Square Kilometer Array, will be sensitive enough to detect FRBs from the first generation of galaxies at the edge of the observable universe,” said Prof. Loeb. “Our work provides the first estimate of the number and properties of the first flashes of radio waves that lit up in the infant universe.”

And then there’s the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) at the at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in British Columbia, which recently began operating. These and other instruments will serve as powerful tools for detecting FRBs, which in turn could be used to view previously unseen regions of time and space, and unlock some of the deepest cosmological mysteries.

“[W]e find that a next generation telescope (with a much better sensitivity than the existing ones) is expected to see many more FRBs than what is observed today,” said Dr. Fialkov. “This would allow to characterize the population of FRBs and identify their origin. Understanding the nature of FRBs will be a major breakthrough. Once the properties of these sources are known, FRBs can be used as cosmic beacons to explore the Universe. One application is to study the history of reionization (cosmic phase transition when the inter-galactic gas was ionized by stars).”

It is an inspired thought, using natural cosmic phenomena as research tools. In that respect, using FRBs to probe the most distant objects in space (and as far back in time as we can) is kind of like using quasars as navigational beacons. In the end, advancing our knowledge of the Universe allows us to explore more of it.

Further Reading: CfA, Astrophysical Journal Letters

Researchers Tackle Question of How the Universe Became Filled With Light

In accordance with the Big Bang model of cosmology, shortly after the Universe came into being there was a period known as the “Dark Ages”. This occurred between 380,000 and 150 million years after the Big Bang, where most of the photons in the Universe were interacting with electrons and protons. As a result, the radiation of this period is undetectable by our current instruments – hence the name.

Astrophysicists and cosmologists have therefore been pondering how the Universe could go from being in this dark, cloudy state to one where it was filled with light. According to a new study by a team of researchers from the University of Iowa and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, it may be that black holes violently ejected matter from the early Universe, thus allowing light to escape.

Their study, titled “Resolving the X-ray emission from the Lyman continuum emitting galaxy Tol 1247-232“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Phillip Kaaret, a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Iowa – and supported by an award from the Chandra X-ray Observatory – the research team arrived at this conclusion by observing a nearby galaxy from which ultraviolet light is escaping.

Milestones in the history of the Universe, from the Big Bang to the present day. Credit: NAOJ/NOAO

This galaxy, known as Tol 1247-232, is a small (and possibly elliptical) galaxy located 652 million light-years away, in the direction of the southern Hydra constellation. This galaxy is one of just nine in the local Universe (and one of only three galaxies close to the Milky Way) that has been shown to emit Lyman continuum photons – a type of radiation in the ultraviolet band.

Back in May of 2016, the team spotted a single X-ray source coming from a star-forming region in this galaxy, using the Chandra X-ray observatory. Based on their observations, they determined that it was not caused by the formation of a new star. For one, new stars do not experience sudden changes in brightness, as this x-ray source did. In addition, the radiation emitted by new stars does not come in the form of a point-like source.

Instead, they determined that what they were seeing had to be the result of a very small object, which left only one likely explanation: a black hole. As Philip Kaaret, a professor in the UI Department of Physics and Astronomy and the lead author on the study, explained:

“The observations show the presence of very bright X-ray sources that are likely accreting black holes. It’s possible the black hole is creating winds that help the ionizing radiation from the stars escape. Thus, black holes may have helped make the universe transparent.”

Where is the Nearest Black Hole
Artist concept of matter swirling around a black hole. Credit: NASA/Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital

However, this also raised the question of how a black hole could be emitting matter. This is something that astrophysicists have puzzled over for quite some time. Whereas all black holes have tendency to consume all that is in their path, a small number of supermassive black holes (SMBHs) have been found to have high-speed jets of charged particles streaming from their cores.

These SMBHs are what power Active Galactic Nuclei, which are compact, bright regions that has been observed at the centers of particularly massive galaxies. At present, no one is certain how these SMBHs manage to fire off jets of hot matter. But it has been theorized that they could be caused by the accelerated rotational energy of the black holes themselves.

In keeping with this, the team considered the possibility that accreting X-ray sources could explain the escape of matter from a black hole. In other words, as a black hole’s intense gravity pulls matter inward, the black hole responds by spinning faster. As the hole’s gravitational pull increases, the speed creates energy, which inevitably causes charged particles to be pushed out. As Kaaret explained:

“As matter falls into a black hole, it starts to spin and the rapid rotation pushes some fraction of the matter out. They’re producing these strong winds that could be opening an escape route for ultraviolet light. That could be what happened with the early galaxies.”

Depiction of the tidal disruption event in F01004-2237. The release of gravitational energy as the debris of the star is accreted by the black hole leads to a flare in the optical light of the galaxy. Credit and copyright: Mark Garlick

Taking this a step further, the team hypothesized that this could be what was responsible for light escaping the “Dark Ages”. Much like the jets of hot material being emitted by SMBHs today, similarly massive black holes in the early Universe could have sped up due to the accretion of matter, spewing out light from the cloudiness and allowing for the Universe to become a clear, bright place.

In the future, the UI team plans to study Tol 1247-232 in more detail and locate other nearby galaxies that are also emitting ultraviolet light. This will corroborate their theory that black holes could be responsible for the observed point source of high-energy X-rays. Combined with studies of the earliest periods of the Universe, it could also validate the theory that the “Dark Ages” ended thanks to the presence of black holes.

Further Reading: Iowa Now, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society