Evidence Found For Cloaked Black Hole In Early Universe

A group of astronomers, including Penn State scientists, has announced the likely discovery of a highly obscured black hole existing only 850 million years after the Big Bang, using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. This is the first evidence for a cloaked black hole at such an early time.

Supermassive black holes typically grow by pulling in material from a disk of surrounding matter. For the most rapid growth, this process generates prodigious amounts of radiation in a very small region around the black hole, and produces an extremely bright, compact source called a quasar.

Theoretical calculations indicate that most of the early growth of black holes occurs while the black hole and disk are surrounded by a dense cloud of gas that feeds material into the disk. As the black hole grows, the gas in the cloud is depleted until the black hole and its bright disk are uncovered.

“It’s extraordinarily challenging to find quasars in this cloaked phase because so much of their radiation is absorbed and cannot be detected by current instruments,” said Fabio Vito, CAS-CONICYT Fellow at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, who led the study, which he started as a postdoctoral researcher at Penn State. “Thanks to Chandra and the ability of X-rays to pierce through the obscuring cloud, we think we’ve finally succeeded.”

The discovery resulted from observations of a quasar called PSO 167-13, which was first discovered by Pan-STARRS, an optical-light telescope in Hawaii. Optical observations from these and other surveys have resulted in the detection of about 200 quasars already shining brightly when the universe was less than a billion years old, or about 8 percent of its present age. These surveys were only considered effective at finding unobscured black holes, because the radiation they detect is suppressed by even thin clouds of surrounding gas and dust. Therefore PSO 167-13 was expected to be unobscured.

Vito’s team were able to test this idea by making Chandra observations of PSO 167-13 and nine other quasars discovered with optical surveys. After 16 hours of observation only three X-ray photons were detected from PSO 167-13, all with relatively high energies. Low energy X-rays are more readily absorbed than higher energy ones, so the likely explanation for the Chandra observation is that the quasar is highly obscured by gas, allowing only high energy X-rays to be detected.

“This was a complete surprise,” said co-author Niel Brandt, Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics and professor of physics at Penn State. “It was like we were expecting a moth but saw a cocoon instead. None of the other nine quasars we observed were cloaked, which is what we anticipated.”

An interesting twist for PSO 167-13 is that the galaxy hosting the quasar has a close companion galaxy visible in data previously obtained with the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) of radio dishes in Chile and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Because of their close separation and the faintness of the X-ray source, the team was unable to determine whether the newly-discovered X-ray emission is associated with the quasar PSO 167-13 or with the companion galaxy.

If the X-rays come from the known quasar, then astronomers need to develop an explanation for why the quasar appeared highly obscured in X-rays but not in optical light. One possibility is that there has been a large and rapid increase in obscuration of the quasar during the 3 years between when the optical and the X-ray observations were made.

On the other hand, if instead the X-rays arise from the companion galaxy, then it represents the detection of a new quasar in close proximity to PSO 167-13. This quasar pair would be the most distant yet detected, breaking the record of 1.2 billion years after the Big Bang. In either of these two cases, the quasar detected by Chandra would be the most distant cloaked one yet seen. The previous record holder is observed 1.3 billion years after the Big Bang. The authors plan to make a more refined characterization of the source with follow-up observations.

“With a longer Chandra observation, we’ll be able to get a better estimate of how obscured this black hole is,” said co-author Franz Bauer, also from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and a former Penn State postdoctoral researcher, “and make a confident identification of the X-ray source with either the known quasar or the companion galaxy.”

The authors also plan to search for more examples of highly obscured black holes.

“We suspect that the majority of supermassive black holes in the early universe are cloaked: it’s then crucial to detect and study them to understand how they could grow to masses of a billion suns so quickly,” said co-author Roberto Gilli of INAF in Bologna, Italy.

A paper describing these results appears online August 8 in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center controls science and flight operations from Cambridge, MA. The data utilized in this research were gathered using the Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer on Chandra, an instrument conceived and designed by a team led by Penn State Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and Astrophysics Gordon Garmire.

In addition to Vito, Brandt, and Bauer, the research team also includes former Penn State postdoctoral researchers Ohad Shemmer, Cristian Vignali, and Bin Luo, who also earned his doctoral degree at Penn State.

Hubble Uncovers A ‘Heavy Metal’ Exoplanet Shaped Like A Football

How can a planet be “hotter than hot?” The answer is when heavy metals are detected escaping from the planet’s atmosphere, instead of condensing into clouds.

Observations by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope reveal magnesium and iron gas streaming from the strange world outside our solar system known as WASP-121b. The observations represent the first time that so-called “heavy metals” — elements heavier than hydrogen and helium — have been spotted escaping from a hot Jupiter, a large, gaseous exoplanet very close to its star.

Normally, hot Jupiter-sized planets are still cool enough inside to condense heavier elements such as magnesium and iron into clouds.

But that’s not the case with WASP-121b, which is orbiting so dangerously close to its star that its upper atmosphere reaches a blazing 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature in WASP-121b’s upper atmosphere is about 10 times greater than that of any known planetary atmosphere. The WASP-121 system resides about 900 light-years from Earth.

“Heavy metals have been seen in other hot Jupiters before, but only in the lower atmosphere,” explained lead researcher David Sing of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “So you don’t know if they are escaping or not. With WASP-121b, we see magnesium and iron gas so far away from the planet that they’re not gravitationally bound.”

Ultraviolet light from the host star, which is brighter and hotter than the Sun, heats the upper atmosphere and helps lead to its escape. In addition, the escaping magnesium and iron gas may contribute to the temperature spike, Sing said. “These metals will make the atmosphere more opaque in the ultraviolet, which could be contributing to the heating of the upper atmosphere,” he explained.

The sizzling planet is so close to its star that it is on the cusp of being ripped apart by the star’s gravity. This hugging distance means that the planet is football shaped due to gravitational tidal forces.

“We picked this planet because it is so extreme,” Sing said. “We thought we had a chance of seeing heavier elements escaping. It’s so hot and so favorable to observe, it’s the best shot at finding the presence of heavy metals. We were mainly looking for magnesium, but there have been hints of iron in the atmospheres of other exoplanets. It was a surprise, though, to see it so clearly in the data and at such great altitudes so far away from the planet. The heavy metals are escaping partly because the planet is so big and puffy that its gravity is relatively weak. This is a planet being actively stripped of its atmosphere.”

The researchers used the observatory’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph to search in ultraviolet light for the spectral signatures of magnesium and iron imprinted on starlight filtering through WASP-121b’s atmosphere as the planet passed in front of, or transited, the face of its home star.

This exoplanet is also a perfect target for NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to search in infrared light for water and carbon dioxide, which can be detected at longer, redder wavelengths. The combination of Hubble and Webb observations would give astronomers a more complete inventory of the chemical elements that make up the planet’s atmosphere.

The WASP-121b study is part of the Panchromatic Comparative Exoplanet Treasury (PanCET) survey, a Hubble program to look at 20 exoplanets, ranging in size from super-Earths (several times Earth’s mass) to Jupiters (which are over 100 times Earth’s mass), in the first large-scale ultraviolet, visible, and infrared comparative study of distant worlds.

The observations of WASP-121b add to the developing story of how planets lose their primordial atmospheres. When planets form, they gather an atmosphere containing gas from the disk in which the planet and star formed. These atmospheres consist mostly of the primordial, lighter-weight gases hydrogen and helium, the most plentiful elements in the universe. This atmosphere dissipates as a planet moves closer to its star.

“The hot Jupiters are mostly made of hydrogen, and Hubble is very sensitive to hydrogen, so we know these planets can lose the gas relatively easily,” Sing said. “But in the case of WASP-121b, the hydrogen and helium gas is outflowing, almost like a river, and is dragging these metals with them. It’s a very efficient mechanism for mass loss.”

The results will appear online today in The Astronomical Journal.

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

New Hubble Constant Measurement Adds To Mystery Of Universe’s Expansion Rate

Astronomers have made a new measurement of how fast the universe is expanding, using an entirely different kind of star than previous endeavors. The revised measurement, which comes from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, falls in the center of a hotly debated question in astrophysics that may lead to a new interpretation of the universe’s fundamental properties.

Scientists have known for almost a century that the universe is expanding, meaning the distance between galaxies across the universe is becoming ever more vast every second. But exactly how fast space is stretching, a value known as the Hubble constant, has remained stubbornly elusive.

Now, University of Chicago professor Wendy Freedman and colleagues have a new measurement for the rate of expansion in the modern universe, suggesting the space between galaxies is stretching faster than scientists would expect. Freedman’s is one of several recent studies that point to a nagging discrepancy between modern expansion measurements and predictions based on the universe as it was more than 13 billion years ago, as measured by the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite.

As more research points to a discrepancy between predictions and observations, scientists are considering whether they may need to come up with a new model for the underlying physics of the universe in order to explain it.

“The Hubble constant is the cosmological parameter that sets the absolute scale, size and age of the universe; it is one of the most direct ways we have of quantifying how the universe evolves,” said Freedman. “The discrepancy that we saw before has not gone away, but this new evidence suggests that the jury is still out on whether there is an immediate and compelling reason to believe that there is something fundamentally flawed in our current model of the universe.”

In a new paper accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal, Freedman and her team announced a new measurement of the Hubble constant using a kind of star known as a red giant. Their new observations, made using Hubble, indicate that the expansion rate for the nearby universe is just under 70 kilometers per second per megaparsec (km/sec/Mpc). One parsec is equivalent to 3.26 light-years distance.

This measurement is slightly smaller than the value of 74 km/sec/Mpc recently reported by the Hubble SH0ES (Supernovae H0 for the Equation of State) team using Cepheid variables, which are stars that pulse at regular intervals that correspond to their peak brightness. This team, led by Adam Riess of the Johns Hopkins University and Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland, recently reported refining their observations to the highest precision to date for their Cepheid distance measurement technique.

How to Measure Expansion

A central challenge in measuring the universe’s expansion rate is that it is very difficult to accurately calculate distances to distant objects.

In 2001, Freedman led a team that used distant stars to make a landmark measurement of the Hubble constant. The Hubble Space Telescope Key Project team measured the value using Cepheid variables as distance markers. Their program concluded that the value of the Hubble constant for our universe was 72 km/sec/Mpc.

But more recently, scientists took a very different approach: building a model based on the rippling structure of light left over from the big bang, which is called the Cosmic Microwave Background. The Planck measurements allow scientists to predict how the early universe would likely have evolved into the expansion rate astronomers can measure today. Scientists calculated a value of 67.4 km/sec/Mpc, in significant disagreement with the rate of 74.0 km/sec/Mpc measured with Cepheid stars.

Astronomers have looked for anything that might be causing the mismatch. “Naturally, questions arise as to whether the discrepancy is coming from some aspect that astronomers don’t yet understand about the stars we’re measuring, or whether our cosmological model of the universe is still incomplete,” Freedman said. “Or maybe both need to be improved upon.”

Freedman’s team sought to check their results by establishing a new and entirely independent path to the Hubble constant using an entirely different kind of star.

Certain stars end their lives as a very luminous kind of star called a red giant, a stage of evolution that our own Sun will experience billions of years from now. At a certain point, the star undergoes a catastrophic event called a helium flash, in which the temperature rises to about 100 million degrees and the structure of the star is rearranged, which ultimately dramatically decreases its luminosity. Astronomers can measure the apparent brightness of the red giant stars at this stage in different galaxies, and they can use this as a way to tell their distance.

The Hubble constant is calculated by comparing distance values to the apparent recessional velocity of the target galaxies — that is, how fast galaxies seem to be moving away. The team’s calculations give a Hubble constant of 69.8 km/sec/Mpc — straddling the values derived by the Planck and Riess teams.

“Our initial thought was that if there’s a problem to be resolved between the Cepheids and the Cosmic Microwave Background, then the red giant method can be the tie-breaker,” said Freedman.

But the results do not appear to strongly favor one answer over the other say the researchers, although they align more closely with the Planck results.

NASA’s upcoming mission, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), scheduled to launch in the mid-2020s, will enable astronomers to better explore the value of the Hubble constant across cosmic time. WFIRST, with its Hubble-like resolution and 100 times greater view of the sky, will provide a wealth of new Type Ia supernovae, Cepheid variables, and red giant stars to fundamentally improve distance measurements to galaxies near and far.

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

Mapping Dark Energy – Accelerating the Expansion of the Universe

On 21 June 2019 the Spektrum-Röntgen-Gamma (Spektr-RG / SRG) spacecraft will be launched from the Kazakh steppe, marking the start of an exciting journey. SRG will be carrying the German Extended ROentgen Survey with an Imaging Telescope Array (eROSITA) X-ray telescope and its Russian ART-XC partner instrument. A Proton rocket will carry the spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome towards its destination – the second Lagrange point of the Sun-Earth system, L2, which is 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.

In orbit around this equilibrium point, eROSITA will embark upon the largest-ever survey of the hot universe. The space telescope will use its seven X-ray detectors to observe the entire sky and search for and map hot sources such as galaxy clusters, active black holes, supernova remnants, X-ray binaries and neutron stars.

Walther Pelzer, executive board member for the Space Administration at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), says, “eROSITA’s X-ray ‘eyes’ are the best that have ever been launched as part of a space telescope. Their unique combination of light-collecting area, field-of-view and resolution makes them approximately 20 times more sensitive than the ROSAT telescope that flew to space in the 1990s. ROSAT also incorporated advanced technology that was ‘made in Germany’. With its enhanced capabilities, eROSITA will help researchers gain a better understanding of the structure and development of the universe, and also contribute towards investigations into the mystery of dark energy.”

The universe has been expanding continuously since the Big Bang. Until the 1990s, it was thought that this cosmic expansion would slow down and eventually come to a halt. Then, the astrophysicists Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt observed stellar explosions that were visible from a great distance and always emitted the same amount of light. They measured their distances and could hardly believe their findings.

“The Type 1a supernovae observed exhibited lower brightness levels than expected. It was clear that the universe was not slowing down as it expanded – quite the opposite, in fact. It is gathering speed and its components are being driven further and further apart at an ever-increasing rate,” explains Thomas Mernik, eROSITA Project Manager at the DLR Space Administration. With this discovery, the three researchers turned science upside and were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011. Yet Perlmutter, Riess and Schmidt have left us with one crucial question: “What is the ‘cosmic fuel’ that powers the expansion of the universe? Since no one has yet been able to answer this question, and the ingredients of this catalyst are unknown, it is simply referred to as dark energy. eROSITA will now attempt to track down the cause of this acceleration,” explains Mernik.

Galaxy clusters – a key to dark energy

Very little is known about the universe. The ingredients that make up 4 percent of its energy density – ‘normal’ material such as protons and neutrons – is only a very small part of the ‘universe recipe’. What the other 96 percent is composed of remains a mystery. Today it is believed that 26 percent is dark matter. However, the largest share, estimated at 70 percent, is comprised of dark energy.

To track this down, scientists must observe something unimaginably large and extremely hot: “Galaxy clusters are composed of up to several thousand galaxies that move at different velocities within a common gravitational field. Inside, these strange structures are permeated by a thin, extremely hot gas that can be observed through its X-ray emissions. This is where eROSITA’s X-ray ‘eyes’ come into play. They allow us to observe galaxy clusters and see how they move in the universe, and above all, how fast they are travelling. We hope that this motion will tell us more about dark energy,” explains Thomas Mernik.

Scientists are not just interested in the movement patterns of galaxy clusters. They also want to count and map these structures. Up to 10,000 such clusters should be ‘captured’ by eROSITA’s X-ray ‘eyes’ – more than have ever been observed before. In addition, other hot phenomena such as active galactic nuclei, supernova remnants, X-ray binaries and neutron stars will be observed and identified.

eROSITA will scan the entire sky every six months for this purpose, and create a deep and detailed X-ray map of the universe over four years. It will thus produce the largest-ever cosmic catalog of hot objects and thus improve the scientific understanding of the structure and development of the universe.

The German telescope consists of two core components – its optics and the associated detectors. The former consists of seven mirror modules aligned in parallel. Each module has a diameter of 36 centimeters and consists of 54 nested mirror shells, whose surface is composed of a para-boloid and a hyper-boloid (Wolter-I optics).

“The mirror modules collect high-energy photons and focus them onto the CCD X-ray cameras, which were specially developed for eROSITA at our semiconductor laboratory in Garching. These form the second core component of eROSITA and are located at the focus of each of the mirror systems. The highly sensitive cameras are the best of their kind and, together with the mirror modules, form an X-ray telescope featuring an unrivaled combination of light-collecting area and field-of-view,” explains Peter Predehl, eROSITA principal investigator at MPE.

Thermal Analog Black Hole Agrees With Hawking Radiation Theory

A team of researchers at the Israel Institute of Technology has found that a thermal analog black hole they created agrees with the Hawking radiation theory. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the group describes building their analog black hole and using data from it to test its temperature. Silke Weinfurtner with the University of Nottingham has published a News and Views piece on the work done by the team in the same journal issue.

One of Stephen Hawking’s theories suggested that not all matter that approaches a black hole falls in—he argued that in some cases in which entangled pairs of particles arise, only one of them would fall in, while the other escaped. The escaping particles were named Hawking radiation. Hawking also predicted that the radiation escaping from a black hole would be thermal and that its temperature would depend on the size of the black hole. Testing the theory has been difficult because of the nature of black holes—any radiation escaping from them would be too faint to observe. To get around that problem, researchers have been working on creating black hole analogs in the lab. In this new effort, the researchers built one designed to absorb sound instead of light. With such an analog, pairs of phonons served as stand-ins for the entangled particles in a real black hole.

The experiment consisted of chilling a group of rubidium atoms and using lasers to create a Bose-Einstein condensate. The atoms were then forced to flow in a way that resembled the trapping that occurs with a real black hole. With such a flow, sound waves were unable to escape under normal circumstances. In their experiment, the researchers were able to force one of a pair of phonons to fall into the flow of atoms while the other was allowed to escape. As they did so, the researchers took measurements of both phonons, allowing them to estimate their temperature to .035 billionths of a kelvin. And in so doing, they found it agreed with Hawking’s prediction. They also found agreement that the radiation from such a system would be thermal.

The work does not prove the theory, of course; the only way to do that will be to develop technology capable of actually measuring the radiation from a real black hole—but it does give the theory more credence.

Did Ancient Supernovae Prompt Human Ancestors To Walk Upright?

Did ancient supernovae induce proto-humans to walk on two legs, eventually resulting in Homo sapiens with hands free to build cathedrals, design rockets and snap iPhone selfies?

A paper published today in the Journal of Geology makes the case: Supernovae bombarded Earth with cosmic energy starting as many as 8 million years ago, with a peak some 2.6 million years ago, initiating an avalanche of electrons in the lower atmosphere and setting off a chain of events that feasibly ended with bipedal hominins such as Homo habilis, dubbed “handy man.”

The authors believe atmospheric ionization probably triggered an enormous upsurge in cloud-to-ground lightning strikes that ignited forest fires around the globe. These infernos could be one reason ancestors of Homo sapiens developed bipedalism — to adapt in savannas that replaced torched forests in northeast Africa.

“It is thought there was already some tendency for hominins to walk on two legs, even before this event,” said lead author Adrian Melott, professor emeritus of physics & astronomy at the University of Kansas. “But they were mainly adapted for climbing around in trees. After this conversion to savanna, they would much more often have to walk from one tree to another across the grassland, and so they become better at walking upright. They could see over the tops of grass and watch for predators. It’s thought this conversion to savanna contributed to bipedalism as it became more and more dominant in human ancestors.”

Based on a “telltale” layer of iron-60 deposits lining the world’s sea beds, astronomers have high confidence supernovae exploded in Earth’s immediate cosmic neighborhood — between 100 and only 50 parsecs (163 light years) away — during the transition from the Pliocene Epoch to the Ice Age.

“We calculated the ionization of the atmosphere from cosmic rays which would come from a supernova about as far away as the iron-60 deposits indicate,” Melott said. “It appears that this was the closest one in a much longer series. We contend it would increase the ionization of the lower atmosphere by 50-fold. Usually, you don’t get lower-atmosphere ionization because cosmic rays don’t penetrate that far, but the more energetic ones from supernovae come right down to the surface — so there would be a lot of electrons being knocked out of the atmosphere.”

According to Melott and co-author Brian Thomas of Washburn University, ionization in the lower atmosphere meant an abundance of electrons would form more pathways for lightning strikes.

“The bottom mile or so of atmosphere gets affected in ways it normally never does,” Melott said. “When high-energy cosmic rays hit atoms and molecules in the atmosphere, they knock electrons out of them — so these electrons are running around loose instead of bound to atoms. Ordinarily, in the lightning process, there’s a buildup of voltage between clouds or the clouds and the ground — but current can’t flow because not enough electrons are around to carry it. So, it has to build up high voltage before electrons start moving. Once they’re moving, electrons knock more electrons out of more atoms, and it builds to a lightning bolt. But with this ionization, that process can get started a lot more easily, so there would be a lot more lightning bolts.”

The KU researcher said the probability that this lightning spike touched off a worldwide upsurge in wildfires is supported by the discovery of carbon deposits found in soils that correspond with the timing of the cosmic-ray bombardment.

“The observation is that there’s a lot more charcoal and soot in the world starting a few million years ago,” Melott said. “It’s all over the place, and nobody has any explanation for why it would have happened all over the world in different climate zones. This could be an explanation. That increase in fires is thought to have stimulated the transition from woodland to savanna in a lot of places — where you had forests, now you had mostly open grassland with shrubby things here and there. That’s thought to be related to human evolution in northeast Africa. Specifically, in the Great Rift Valley where you get all these hominin fossils.”

Melott said no such event is likely to occur again anytime soon. The nearest star capable of exploding into a supernova in the next million years is Betelgeuse, some 200 parsecs (652 light years) from Earth.

“Betelgeuse is too far away to have effects anywhere near this strong,” Melott said. “So, don’t worry about this. Worry about solar proton events. That’s the danger for us with our technology — a solar flare that knocks out electrical power. Just imagine months without electricity.”

New Clues About How Ancient Galaxies Lit Up The Universe

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed that some of the Universe’s earliest galaxies were brighter than expected. The excess light is a by-product of the galaxies releasing incredibly high amounts of ionising radiation. The finding offers clues to the cause of the Epoch of Reionisation, a major cosmic event that transformed the universe from being mostly opaque to the brilliant starscape seen today. The new work appears in a paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Researchers report on observations of some of the first galaxies to form in the universe, less than 1 billion years after the big bang (or a little more than 13 billion years ago). The data show that in a few specific wavelengths of infrared light, the galaxies are considerably brighter than scientists anticipated. The study is the first to confirm this phenomenon for a large sampling of galaxies from this period, showing that these were not special cases of excessive brightness, but that even average galaxies present at that time were much brighter in these wavelengths than galaxies we see today.

No one knows for sure when the first stars in our universe burst to life. But evidence suggests that between about 100 million and 200 million years after the Big Bang, the Universe was filled mostly with neutral hydrogen gas that had perhaps just begun to coalesce into stars, which then began to form the first galaxies. By about 1 billion years after the big bang, the Universe had become a sparkling firmament. Something else had changed, too: Electrons of the omnipresent neutral hydrogen gas had been stripped away in a process known as ionisation. The Epoch of Reionisation — the changeover from a universe full of neutral hydrogen to one filled with ionised hydrogen — is well documented.

Before this Universe-wide transformation, long-wavelength forms of light, such as radio waves and visible light, traversed the universe more or less unencumbered. But shorter wavelengths of light — including ultraviolet light, X-rays and gamma rays — were stopped short by neutral hydrogen atoms. These collisions would strip the neutral hydrogen atoms of their electrons, ionising them.

But what could have possibly produced enough ionizing radiation to affect all the hydrogen in the Universe? Was it individual stars? Giant galaxies? If either were the culprit, those early cosmic colonisers would have been different than most modern stars and galaxies, which typically don’t release high amounts of ionising radiation. Then again, perhaps something else entirely caused the event, such as quasars — galaxies with incredibly bright centres powered by huge amounts of material orbiting supermassive black holes.

“It’s one of the biggest open questions in observational cosmology,” said Stephane De Barros, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. “We know it happened, but what caused it? These new findings could be a big clue.”

To peer back in time to the era just before the Epoch of Reionisation ended, Spitzer stared at two regions of the sky for more than 200 hours each, allowing the space telescope to collect light that had travelled for more than 13 billion years to reach us.

As some of the longest science observations ever carried out by Spitzer, they were part of an observing campaign called GREATS, short for GOODS Re-ionization Era wide-Area Treasury from Spitzer. GOODS (itself an acronym: Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey) is another campaign that performed the first observations of some GREATS targets. The study also used archival data from the NASA / ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Using these ultra-deep observations by Spitzer, the team of astronomers observed 135 distant galaxies and found that they were all particularly bright in two specific wavelengths of infrared light produced by ionising radiation interacting with hydrogen and oxygen gases within the galaxies. This implies that these galaxies were dominated by young, massive stars composed mostly of hydrogen and helium. They contain very small amounts of “heavy” elements (like nitrogen, carbon and oxygen) compared to stars found in average modern galaxies.

These stars were not the first stars to form in the Universe (those would have been composed of hydrogen and helium only) but were still members of a very early generation of stars. The Epoch of Reionisation wasn’t an instantaneous event, so while the new results are not enough to close the book on this cosmic event, they do provide new details about how the Universe evolved at this time and how the transition played out.

“We did not expect that Spitzer, with a mirror no larger than a Hula-Hoop, would be capable of seeing galaxies so close to the dawn of time,” said Michael Werner, Spitzer’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “But nature is full of surprises, and the unexpected brightness of these early galaxies, together with Spitzer’s superb performance, puts them within range of our small but powerful observatory.”

The NASA / CSA / ESA James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in 2021, will study the Universe in many of the same wavelengths observed by Spitzer. But where Spitzer’s primary mirror is only 85 centimetres in diameter, Webb’s is 6.5 metres — about 7.5 times larger — enabling Webb to study these galaxies in far greater detail. In fact, Webb will try to detect light from the first stars and galaxies in the Universe. The new study shows that due to their brightness in those infrared wavelengths, the galaxies observed by Spitzer will be easier for Webb to study than previously thought.

“These results by Spitzer are certainly another step in solving the mystery of cosmic reionisation,” said Pascal Oesch, an assistant professor at the University of Geneva and a co-author on the study. “We now know that the physical conditions in these early galaxies were very different than in typical galaxies today. It will be the job of the James Webb Space Telescope to work out the detailed reasons why.”