By looking deeper into space (and farther back in time), astronomers and cosmologists continue to push the boundaries of what is known about the Universe. Thanks to improvements in instrumentation and observation techniques, we are now at the point where astronomers are able to observe some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe – which in turn is providing vital clues about how our Universe evolved.
It is a well known fact among astronomers and cosmologists that the farther into the Universe you look, the further back in time you are seeing. And the closer astronomers are able to see to the Big Bang, which took place 13.8 billion years ago, the more interesting the discoveries tend to become. It is these finds that teach us the most about the earliest periods of the Universe and its subsequent evolution.
As with other SMBHs, this particular discovery (designated J1342+0928) is a quasar, a class of super bright objects that consist of a black hole accreting matter at the center of a massive galaxy. The object was discovered during the course of a survey for distant objects, which combined infrared data from the WISE mission with ground-based surveys. The team then followed up with data from the Carnegie Observatory’s Magellan telescopes in Chile.
As with all distant cosmological objects, J1342+0928’s distance was determined by measuring its redshift. By measuring how much the wavelength of an object’s light is stretched by the expansion of the Universe before it reaches Earth, astronomers are able to determine how far it had to travel to get here. In this case, the quasar had a redshift of 7.54, which means that it took more than 13 billion years for its light to reach us.
As Xiaohui Fan of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory (and a co-author on the study) explained in a Carnegie press release:
“This great distance makes such objects extremely faint when viewed from Earth. Early quasars are also very rare on the sky. Only one quasar was known to exist at a redshift greater than seven before now, despite extensive searching.”
Given its age and mass, the discovery of this quasar was quite the surprise for the study team. As Daniel Stern, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a co-author on the study, indicated in a NASA press release, “This black hole grew far larger than we expected in only 690 million years after the Big Bang, which challenges our theories about how black holes form.”
Essentially, this quasar existed at a time when the Universe was just beginning to emerge from what cosmologists call the “Dark Ages”. During this period, which began roughly 380,000 years to 150 million years after the Big Bang, 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.
The Universe remained in this state, without any luminous sources, until gravity condensed matter into the first stars and galaxies. This period is known as the “Reinozation Epoch”, which lasted from 150 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang and was characterized by the first stars, galaxies and quasars forming. It is so-named because the energy released by these ancient galaxies caused the neutral hydrogen of the Universe to get excited and ionize.
Once the Universe became reionzed, photons could travel freely throughout space and the Universe officially became transparent to light. This is what makes the discovery of this quasar so interesting. As the team observed, much of the hydrogen surrounding it is neutral, which means it is not only the most distant quasar ever observed, but also the only example of a quasar that existed before the Universe became reionized.
In other words, J1342+0928 existed during a major transition period for the Universe, which happens to be one of the current frontiers of astrophysics. As if this wasn’t enough, the team was also confounded by the object’s mass. For a black hole to have become so massive during this early period of the Universe, there would have to be special conditions to allow for such rapid growth.
What these conditions are, however, remains a mystery. Whatever the case may be, this newly-found SMBH appears to be consuming matter at the center of a galaxy at an astounding rate. And while its discovery has raised many questions, it is anticipated that the deployment of future telescopes will reveal more about this quasar and its cosmological period. As Stern said:
“With several next-generation, even-more-sensitive facilities currently being built, we can expect many exciting discoveries in the very early universe in the coming years.”
These next-generation missions include the European Space Agency’s Euclid mission and NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Whereas Euclid will study objects located 10 billion years in the past in order to measure how dark energy influenced cosmic evolution, WFIRST will perform wide-field near-infrared surveys to measure the light coming from a billion galaxies.
Both missions are expected to reveal more objects like J1342+0928. At present, scientists predict that there are only 20 to 100 quasars as bright and as distant as J1342+0928 in the sky. As such, they were most pleased with this discovery, which is expected to provide us with fundamental information about the Universe when it was only 5% of its current age.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
“[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.
Using Hubble’s newest tool, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), researchers have nailed down and enhanced our understanding of the reionization of helium in the early Universe, clarifying the time frame of 11.7 to 11.3 billion years ago when the universe stripped electrons off from primeval helium atoms. Hubble scientists say it was the equivalent of global warming, except that a heat wave blasted through the entire early universe at that time, inhibiting the growth of small galaxies for almost 500 million years.
The universe went through an initial heat wave over 13 billion years ago when energy from early massive stars ionized cold interstellar hydrogen from the Big Bang. This epoch is actually called reionization because the hydrogen nuclei were originally in an ionized state shortly after the Universe’s beginnings.
It took another 2 billion years before the universe produced sources of ultraviolet radiation with enough energy to reionize the helium produced in the Big Bang, which heated intergalactic gas and inhibited it from gravitationally collapsing to form new generations of stars in some small galaxies. The lowest-mass galaxies were not even able to hold onto their gas, and it escaped back into intergalactic space.
This radiation didn’t come from stars, but rather from quasars, the brilliant cores of active galaxies. In fact the epoch when the helium was being reionized corresponds to a transitory time in the universe’s history when quasars were most abundant.
Michael Shull of the University of Colorado and his team were able to find the telltale helium spectral absorption lines in the ultraviolet light from a quasar. The quasar beacon shines light through intervening clouds of otherwise invisible gas, like a headlight shining through a fog. The beam allows for a core-sample probe of the clouds of gas interspersed between galaxies in the early universe.
It was a raucous time. Galaxies frequently collided, and this engorged supermassive black holes in the cores of galaxies with infalling gas. The black holes furiously converted some of the gravitational energy of this mass to powerful far-ultraviolet radiation that would blaze out of galaxies. This heated the intergalactic helium from 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit to nearly 40,000 degrees. After the helium was reionized in the universe, intergalactic gas again cooled down and dwarf galaxies could resume normal assembly.
“I imagine quite a few more dwarf galaxies may have formed if helium reionization had not taken place,” said Shull.
So far Shull and his team only have one sightline to measure the helium transition, but the COS science team plans to use Hubble to look in other directions to see if the helium reionization uniformly took place across the universe.
The science team’s results will be published in the October 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.