How Much Light Has The Universe Created Since the Big Bang?

The universe, most cosmologists tell us, began with a bang. At some point, the lights turned on. How much light has the universe produced since it was born, 13.8 billion years ago?

It seems a difficult answer at first glance. Turn on a light bulb, turn it off and the photons appear to vanish. In space, however, we can track them down. Every light particle ever radiated by galaxies and stars is still travelling, which is why we can peer so far back in time with our telescopes.

A new paper in the Astrophysical Journal explores the nature of this extragalactic background light, or EBL. Measuring the EBL, the team states, “is as fundamental to cosmology as measuring the heat radiation left over from the Big Bang (the cosmic microwave background) at radio wavelengths.”

Turns out that several NASA spacecraft have helped us understand the answer. They peered at the universe in every wavelength of light, ranging from long radio waves to short, energy-filled gamma rays. While their work doesn’t go back to the origin of the universe, it does give good measurements for the last five billion years or so. (About the age of the solar system, coincidentally.)

Artist's conception of how gamma rays (dashed lines) bump against photons of electromagnetic background light, producing electrons and positrons. Credit: Nina McCurdy and Joel R. Primack/UC-HiPACC; Blazar: Frame from a conceptual animation of 3C 120 created by Wolfgang Steffen/UNAM
Artist’s conception of how gamma rays (dashed lines) bump against photons of electromagnetic background light, producing electrons and positrons. Credit: Nina McCurdy and Joel R. Primack/UC-HiPACC; Blazar: Frame from a conceptual animation of 3C 120 created by Wolfgang Steffen/UNAM

It’s hard to see this faint background light against the powerful glow of stars and galaxies today, about as hard as it is to see the Milky Way from downtown Manhattan, the astronomers said.

The solution involves gamma rays and blazars, which are huge black holes in the heart of a galaxy that produce jets of material that point towards Earth. Just like a flashlight.

These blazars emit gamma rays, but not all of them reach Earth. Some, astronomers said, “strike a hapless EBL photon along the way.”

When this happens, the gamma ray and photon each zap out and produce a negatively charged electron and a positively charged positron.

More interestingly, blazars produce gamma rays at slightly different energies, which are in turn stopped by EBL photons at different energies themselves.

So, by figuring out how many gamma rays with different energies are stopped by the photons, we can see how many EBL photons are between us and the distant blazars.

Scientists have now just announced they could see how the EBL changed over time. Peering further back in the universe, as we said earlier, serves as a sort of time machine. So, the further back we see the gamma rays zap out, the better we can map out the EBL’s changes in earlier eras.

The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope (formerly called GLAST).  Credit: NASA
The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope (formerly called GLAST). Credit: NASA

To get technical, this is how the astronomers did it:

– Compared the gamma-ray findings of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope to the intensity of X-rays measured by several X-ray observatories, including the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission, the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, and XMM/Newton. This let astronomers figure out what the blazars’ brightnesses were at different energies.

– Comparing those measurements to those taken by special telscopes on the ground that can look at the actual “gamma-ray flux” Earth receives from those blazars. (Gamma rays are annihilated in our atmosphere and produce a shower of subatomic particles, sort of like a “sonic boom”, called Cherenkov radiation.)

The measurements we have in this paper are about as far back as we can see right now, the astronomers added.

“Five billion years ago is the maximum distance we are able to probe with our current technology,” stated the paper’s lead author, Alberto Dominguez.

“Sure, there are blazars farther away, but we are not able to detect them because the high-energy gamma rays they are emitting are too attenuated by EBL when they get to us—so weakened that our instruments are not sensitive enough to detect them.”

Source: University of California High-Performance AstroComputing Center

Bright Blazar’s Emission Defies Explanations

When it comes to sheer wattage, blazars definitely rule. As the brightest of active galactic nuclei, these sources of extreme high-energy gamma rays are usually associated with relativistic jets of material spewing into space and enabled by matter falling into a host galaxy’s black hole. The further away they are, the dimmer they should be, right? Not necessarily. According to new observations of blazar PKS 1424+240, the emission spectrum might hold a new twist… one that can’t be readily explained.

David Williams, adjunct professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz, said the findings may indicate something new about the emission mechanisms of blazars, the extragalactic background light, or the propagation of gamma-ray photons over long distances. “There may be something going on in the emission mechanisms of the blazar that we don’t understand,” Williams said. “There are more exotic explanations as well, but it may be premature to speculate at this point.”

The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope was the first instrument to detect gamma rays from PKS 1424+240, and the observation was then seconded by VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System) – a terrestrially based tool designed to be sensitive to gamma-rays in the very high-energy (VHE) band. However, these weren’t the only science gadgets in action. To help determine the redshift of the blazar, researchers also employed the Hubble Space Telescope’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph.

To help understand what they were seeing, the team then set a lower limit for the blazar’s redshift, taking it to a distance of at least 7.4 billion light-years. If their guess is correct, such a huge distance would mean that the majority of the gamma rays should have been absorbed by the extragalactic background light, but again the answers didn’t add up. For that amount of absorption, the blazar itself would be creating a very unexpected emission spectrum.

“We’re seeing an extraordinarily bright source which does not display the characteristic emission expected from a very high-energy blazar,” said Amy Furniss, a graduate student at the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics (SCIPP) at UCSC and first author of a paper describing the new findings.

Bright? You bet. In this circumstance it has to over-ride the ever-present extragalactic background light (EBL). The whole Universe is filled with this “stellar light pollution”. We know it’s there – produced by countless stars and galaxies – but it’s just hard to measure. What we do know is that when a high-energy gamma ray photo meets with a low-energy EBL photon, they essentially cancel each other out. It stands to reason that the further a gamma ray has to travel, the more likely it is to encounter the EBL, putting a limit on the distance to which we can detect high-energy gamma ray sources. By lowering the limit, the new model was then used to ” calculate the expected absorption of very high-energy gamma rays from PKS 1424+240″. This should have allowed Furniss’ team to gather an intrinsic gamma-ray emission spectrum for the most distant blazar yet captured – but all it did was confuse the issue. It just doesn’t coincide with expected emissions using current models.

“We’re finding very high-energy gamma-ray sources at greater distances than we thought we might, and in doing so we’re finding some things we don’t entirely understand,” Williams said. “Having a source at this distance will allow us to better understand how much background absorption there is and test the cosmological models that predict the extragalactic background light.”

Original Story Source: University of California Santa Cruz News Release. For further reading: The Firm Redshift Lower Limit of the Most Distant TeV-Detected Blazar PKS 1424+240.

Fermi Measures Light from All the Stars That Have Ever Existed

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.

Source: NASA