‘Sideline quasars’ helped to stifle early galaxy formation

University of Colorado Boulder astronomers targeting one of the brightest quasars glowing in the universe some 11 billion years ago say “sideline quasars” likely teamed up with it to heat abundant helium gas billions of years ago, preventing small galaxy formation.

CU-Boulder Professor Michael Shull and Research Associate David Syphers used the Hubble Space Telescope to look at the quasar -- the brilliant core of an active galaxy that acted as a “lighthouse” for the observations -- to better understand the conditions of the early universe. The scientists studied gaseous material between the telescope and the quasar with a $70 million ultraviolet spectrograph on Hubble designed by a team from CU-Boulder’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy.

During a time known as the “helium reionization era” some 11 billion years ago, blasts of ionizing radiation from black holes believed to be seated in the cores of quasars stripped electrons from primeval helium atoms, said Shull. The initial ionization that charged up the helium gas in the universe is thought to have occurred sometime shortly after the Big Bang.

“We think ‘sideline quasars’ located out of the telescope’s view reionized intergalactic helium gas from different directions, preventing it from gravitationally collapsing and forming new generations of stars,” he said. Shull likened the early universe to a hunk of Swiss cheese, where quasars cleared out zones of neutral helium gas in the intergalactic medium that were then “pierced” by UV observations from the space telescope.

The results of the new study also indicate the helium reionization era of the universe appears to have occurred later than thought, said Shull, a professor in CU-Boulder’s astrophysical and planetary sciences department. “We initially thought the helium reionization era took place about 12 billion years ago,” said Shull. “But now we think it more likely occurred in the 11 to 10 billion-year range, which was a surprise.”

A paper on the subject by Shull and Syphers was published online this week in the Astrophysical Journal.

The Cosmic Origins Spectrograph used for the quasar observations aboard Hubble was designed to probe the evolution of galaxies, stars and intergalactic matter.  The COS team is led by CU Professor James Green of CASA and was installed on Hubble by astronauts during its final servicing mission in 2009.  COS was built in an industrial partnership between CU and Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder.

Read the full press release here.

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