Spectrum of gamma-ray burst's afterglow indicates beginning of re-ionization process

April 30, 2014
Figure 1: Visible wavelength spectrum of the afterglow of GRB 130606A at redshift of z=5.913, when the Universe was a mere one billion years old. Due to its redshift, the Lyman-alpha line (originally 1215 Å) is at 8400 Å. The analysis of a distinctive feature (i.e., the wing feature) between 8000-8400 Å (in the vicinity of this Lyman-alpha line near GRB) contributed to the estimate of the ratio of neutral hydrogen relative to the entire amount of hydrogen. Left: Absorption by neutral hydrogen gas along the line of sight Middle (within the red outline): Wing feature from the Lyman-alpha line Right: Redshifted Lyman-alpha line at z=5.913

A research team, led by Professor Tomonori Totani (School of Science, the University of Tokyo) and composed of scientists from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, the Tokyo Institute of Technology and others, has discovered an indicator of when re-ionization of the primordial Universe began. The team used the Faint Object Camera and Spectrograph (FOCAS) mounted on the Subaru Telescope to thoroughly study the visible wavelength spectrum of the afterglow of a gamma-ray burst, which is a violent explosion of a massive star. Direct measurement of the absorption features in the spectrum of the afterglow toward GRB 130606A, located at a great distance, revealed the proportion of neutral hydrogen gas absorbing the light in its vicinity. This finding provides the best estimate of the amount of such neutral gas in the early Universe. The team's research means that scientists can now narrow down the time when the Universe was beginning to re-ionize after its dark age.

Hydrogen is the main element of ordinary matter (5%) in the Universe, which is primarily composed of more abundant dark matter (27%) and dominant dark energy (68%). During a stage of high temperature right after the Universe's birth about 14 billion years ago, the hydrogen atom was ionized, i.e., split into a nucleon and electron. When the temperature dropped about 400,000 years after the Universe's birth, the nucleon and electron combined to make neutral hydrogen atoms. At that time, the Universe became transparent to radiation, and light-emitting objects became visible. In the present Universe, most hydrogen exists as diffuse, ionized intergalactic gas. To account for this difference between the past and present, there must have been a transition era of re-ionization after the dark age of the Universe, which was filled with neutral gas. However, scientists do not yet know when this transition occurred or understand how the process took place. One strong possibility is that the ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the first-generation galaxies in the one-billion-year-old Universe ionized the hydrogen gas. Therefore, it is very important to identify when the re-ionization occurred relative to the formation of the first generation of light-emitting objects.

When astronomical objects are far-distant, it means that they are also from the far-distant past. Recent observations from large, ground-based telescopes have enabled astronomers to study galaxies, quasars, and GRBs during an era one billion years after the birth of the Universe. If an object already existed at a time re-ionization was occurring, it must have had some neutral hydrogen gas surrounding it. Although there have been many attempts to detect such neutral gas, no clear proof of it has emerged.

Previous observational approaches to discovering it have focused on galaxies or quasars. Observations of the galaxies are indirect in that a number-count decreases when neutral hydrogen gas obscures their light. Observations of quasars directly measure the absorption features in their spectra caused by neutral hydrogen. However quasars occur in the most developed regions of galaxy evolution, and their own radiation ionizes the surrounding material. These factors make it difficult to estimate the neutral gas in this environment. In contrast, GRBs allow the direct measurement of neutral hydrogen and also overcome the drawbacks of the quasar approach.

Although studies based on GRBs are highly desirable, the rare occurrence of GRBs bright enough to enable detailed analysis has been a challenge. The only previously available data about re-ionization was the current team's 2006 report of data from observations of GRB 050904 from the Subaru Telescope. This past data proved that the ionization rate was already high in that era, without any sign of intergalactic neutral hydrogen.

The current research team used Subaru Telescope's FOCAS to detect the afterglow of GRB 130606A on June 6, 2013 and studied its spectrum in great detail. Its afterglow was bright enough in the visible wavelength to allow for analysis, despite its great distance at a redshift of 5.913. Its distance situates the object at a time close to the presumed re-ionization era. The data from Subaru Telescope clearly show that intergalactic, neutral hydrogen gas accounts for the observed absorption feature. Further analysis led the team to conclude that more than 10% of the was neutral relative to the total amount of hydrogen. This means that the Universe still had a high proportion of when it was one billion years old. This is the first time that a research team has made a quantitative measurement of such a high proportion of neutral gas during this era.

This finding marks a significant beginning for scientists to understand the era that preceded re-ionization. Next generation telescopes, whether in space or ground-based, such as the future Thirty-Meter-Telescope (TMT), will definitely show how the first generation galaxies formed in the primordial Universe and more clearly define the process of transition from an opaque, -filled Universe to a transparent, re-ionized one.

Explore further: The intergalactic medium in the young universe

More information: "Probing Intergalactic Neutral Hydrogen by the Lyman Alpha Red Damping Wing of Gamma-Ray Burst 130606A Afterglow Spectrum at z = 5.913." Tomonori Totani, Kentaro Aoki, Takashi Hattori, George Kosugi, Yuu Niino, Tetsuya Hashimoto, Nobuyuki Kawai, Kouji Ohta, Takanori Sakamoto, Toru Yamada. arXiv:1312.3934v3 [astro-ph.HE] arxiv.org/abs/1312.3934

Related Stories

The intergalactic medium in the young universe

September 30, 2013

(Phys.org) —In its earliest years, the universe was so hot that electrons and protons could not bind together in neutral atoms: all of the gas in the cosmos was ionized. Then, after 380,000 years of expansion, the universe ...

Distant quasar illuminates a filament of the cosmic web

January 19, 2014

Astronomers have discovered a distant quasar illuminating a vast nebula of diffuse gas, revealing for the first time part of the network of filaments thought to connect galaxies in a cosmic web. Researchers at the University ...

New discovery sheds light on the ecosystem of young galaxies

August 29, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- A team of scientists, led by Michael Rauch from the Carnegie Observatories, has discovered a distant galaxy that may help elucidate two fundamental questions of galaxy formation: How galaxies take in matter ...

Discovery of the most distant galaxy in the cosmic dawn

June 4, 2012

A team of astronomers led by Takatoshi Shibuya, Dr. Nobunari Kashikawa, Dr. Kazuaki Ota, and Dr. Masanori Iye (National Astronomical Observatory of Japan) has used the Subaru and Keck Telescopes to discover the most distant ...

Recommended for you

Astronomers search for signs of life on Wolf 1061 exoplanet

January 19, 2017

Is there anybody out there? The question of whether Earthlings are alone in the universe has puzzled everyone from biologists and physicists to philosophers and filmmakers. It's also the driving force behind San Francisco ...

A catalog of habitable zone exoplanets

January 18, 2017

The last two decades have seen an explosion of detections of exoplanets, as the sensitivity to smaller planets has dramatically improved thanks especially to the Kepler mission. These discoveries have found that the frequency ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Apr 30, 2014
Note to translator: it is "proton" not "nucleon" (although technically, a proton is one of two types of nucleons).
not rated yet Apr 30, 2014
Additional note to translator/author: it remains unknown to what extent the first generation of STARS were bound into galaxies. It is the STARS that are believed to have caused re-ionization. These stars (Population III stars) are not independently visible (too small, too far away in time/space) hence it is not incorrect to talk about observing galaxies (and especially (stellar) supernovae), but it is a bit misleading to talk about galaxies causing re-ionization.
1 / 5 (4) Apr 30, 2014
GRB 090429B has been measured at z=9.4, this is at 13.14 Gly, there are no nearby galaxies to distort it's redshift. The Big Bang occurred at 13.66 Gly, subtracting 13.14 from 13.66=0.52 Gly. Re-ionization started at 0.40 Gly - 1.0 Gly when it was completed.

It is a curious thing in such a supposedly young universe that a GRB occurs just as so-called reionization has barely begun? I'd say the limits of the redshift integral has been calculated wrong to have a GRB located in such proximity to the primordial gas cloud let alone right at the start of reionization.

When the James Webb telescope becomes operational & more GRB's are located at even higher redshift, let's ay 12-20 (or likely even higher), it leaves me to wondering how the redshift integral will be tinkered with to account for existence of GRB's that would almost place them inside the Primordial Gas Cloud.

1 / 5 (4) May 01, 2014
Only a better understanding of electric discharge in plasma will stem the tide of the endless flow of "surprises".
1 / 5 (3) May 01, 2014
@Ojorf.........I see that you too have never seen a Complex Integral that you could solve.
May 01, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.