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Hubble Astronomers Uncover an Overheated Early Universe
10.07.10
 
illustration showing age of universe This diagram traces the evolution of the universe from the big bang to the present. Two watershed epochs are shown. Not long after the big bang, light from the first stars burned off a fog of cold hydrogen in a process called reionization. At a later epoch quasars, the black-hole-powered cores of active galaxies, pumped out enough ultraviolet light to reionize the primordial helium. Illustration credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)
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If you think global warming is bad, 11 billion years ago there was universal warming. During this period, fierce radiation blasts from active galaxies stunted the growth of some small galaxies for approximately 500 million years.

This is the conclusion of a team of astronomers who used the new capabilities of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to probe the invisible, remote universe. The team's results will be published in the October 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

Using Hubble's Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS), the astronomers identified this era, from 11.7 to 11.3 billion years ago, when the ultraviolet light emitted by quasars stripped electrons off helium atoms. The process, known as ionization, heated the intergalactic helium from 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit to nearly 40,000 degrees. This inhibited the gas from gravitationally collapsing to form new generations of stars in some small galaxies.

Because of its greatly improved sensitivity and lower background "noise" compared to previous spectrographs in space, the COS observations were exquisite. They allowed scientists to produce more detailed measurements of the intergalactic helium than previously possible.

"These COS results yield new insight into an important phase in the history of our universe," said Hubble Program Scientist Eric Smith at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Michael Shull of the University of Colorado in Boulder and his team studied the spectrum of ultraviolet light that was produced by a quasar and found signs of ionized helium. This beacon, like a headlight shining through fog, shines through interspersed clouds of otherwise invisible gas and allows for a core sample of the gas clouds.

The universe went through an initial heat wave more than 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 big bang.

The Hubble team found it would take another two billion years before the universe produced sources of ultraviolet radiation with enough energy to reionize the primordial helium that also was cooked up in the big bang. This radiation didn't come from stars, but rather from super massive black holes. The black holes furiously converted some of the gravitational energy of this mass to powerful ultraviolet radiation that would blaze out of galaxies as quasars. The helium's reionization occurred at a transitory time in the universe's history when galaxies collided to ignite quasars.

After the helium was reionized, 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," Shull said.

So far Shull and his team only have one sightline to measure the helium transition to its ionized state. However, the COS science team plans to use Hubble to look in other directions to determine if helium reionization uniformly took place across the universe.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington, D.C.