Webb Finds Dwarf Galaxies Reionised the Universe
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This news is classified in: Aerospace Space

Feb 28, 2024

Webb Finds Dwarf Galaxies Reionised the Universe

Using the unprecedented capabilities of the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, an international team of scientists has obtained the first spectroscopic observations of the faintest galaxies during the first billion years of the Universe. These findings help answer a longstanding question for astronomers: what sources caused the reionisation of the Universe?

Much remains to be understood about the time in the Universe’s early history known as the era of reionisation. It was a period of darkness without any stars or galaxies, filled with a dense fog of hydrogen gas, until the first stars ionised the gas around them and light began to travel through. Astronomers have spent decades trying to identify the sources that emitted radiation powerful enough to gradually clear away this hydrogen fog that blanketed the early Universe.

The Ultradeep NIRSpec and NIRCam ObserVations before the Epoch of Reionization (UNCOVER) programme (#2561) consists of both imaging and spectroscopic observations of the lensing cluster Abell 2744. An international team of astronomers used gravitational lensing by this target, also known as Pandora’s Cluster, to investigate the sources of the Universe’s period of reionisation. Gravitational lensing magnifies and distorts the appearance of distant galaxies, so they look very different from those in the foreground.

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The galaxy cluster 'lens' is so massive that it warps the fabric of space itself, so much so that light from distant galaxies that passes through the warped space also takes on a warped appearance. The magnification effect allowed the team to study very distant sources of light beyond Abell 2744, revealing eight extremely faint galaxies that would otherwise be undetectable, even to Webb.

The team found that these faint galaxies are immense producers of ultraviolet light, at levels that are four times larger than what was previously assumed. This means that most of the photons that reionised the Universe likely came from these dwarf galaxies.

“This discovery unveils the crucial role played by ultra-faint galaxies in the early Universe's evolution,” said team member Iryna Chemerynska of the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris in France. “They produce ionising photons that transform neutral hydrogen into ionised plasma during cosmic reionisation. It highlights the importance of understanding low-mass galaxies in shaping the Universe's history.”

“These cosmic powerhouses collectively emit more than enough energy to get the job done,” added team leader Hakim Atek, also of the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris and lead author of the paper describing this result. “Despite their tiny size, these low-mass galaxies are prolific producers of energetic radiation, and their abundance during this period is so substantial that their collective influence can transform the entire state of the Universe.”

To arrive at this conclusion, the team first combined extremely sensitive Webb imaging data with imaging of Abell 2744 from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to select extremely faint galaxy candidates in the epoch of reionisation.

This was followed by spectroscopy with Webb’s Near-InfraRed Spectrograph (NIRSpec). The instrument’s Multi-Shutter Assembly was used to capture several spectra of these faint galaxies. This is the first time scientists have reliably estimated how common faint galaxies are. The results confirm that they are the most abundant type of galaxies during the epoch of reionisation. This also marks the first time that the ionising power of these galaxies has been measured, enabling the astronomers to determine that they are producing sufficient energetic radiation to ionise the early Universe.

“The incredible sensitivity of NIRSpec combined with the gravitational amplification provided by Abell 2744 enabled us to identify and study these galaxies from the first billion years of the Universe in detail, despite their being over 100 times fainter than our own Milky Way,” continued Hakim.

In an upcoming Webb observing programme, named GLIMPSE, scientists will obtain the most sensitive observations ever done on the sky. By targeting another galaxy cluster, named Abell S1063, even fainter galaxies during the epoch of reionisation will be identified. This will allow scientists to verify whether the dwarf galaxies in the current study are typical of the large-scale distribution of galaxies. As these new results are based on observations obtained in one field, the team notes that the ionising properties of faint galaxies can appear differently if they reside in denser regions.

Additional observations in a different field will therefore provide further insights and help verify these conclusions. The GLIMPSE observations will also help astronomers probe the period known as cosmic dawn, when the Universe was only a few million years old, to improve our understanding of the emergence of the first galaxies.


European Space Agency (ESA)
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