Haloes, Hosts and Quasars

Not long ago I posted an item about the exciting discovery of a quasar at redshift 7.085. I thought I’d return briefly to that topic in order (a) to draw your attention to a nice guest post by Daniel Mortlock on Andrew Jaffe’s blog giving more background to the discovery, and (b) to say  something  about the theoretical interpretation of the results.

The reason for turning the second theme is to explain a little bit about what difficulties this observation might pose for the standard “Big Bang” cosmological model. Our general understanding of galaxies form is that gravity gathers cold non-baryonic matter into clumps  into which “ordinary” baryonic material subsequently falls, eventually forming a luminous galaxy forms surrounded by a “halo” of (invisible) dark matter.  Quasars are galaxies in which enough baryonic matter has collected in the centre of the halo to build a supermassive black hole, which powers a short-lived phase of extremely high luminosity.

The key idea behind this picture is that the haloes form by hierarchical clustering: the first to form are small but  merge rapidly  into objects of increasing mass as time goes on. We have a fairly well-established theory of what happens with these haloes – called the Press-Schechter formalism – which allows us to calculate the number-density N(M,z) of objects of a given mass M as a function of redshift z. As an aside, it’s interesting to remark that the paper largely responsible for establishing the efficacy of this theory was written by George Efstathiou and Martin Rees in 1988, on the topic of high redshift quasars.

Anyway, courtesy of my estimable PhD student Jo Short, this is how the mass function of haloes is predicted to evolve in the standard cosmological model (the different lines show the distribution as a function of redshift for redshifts from 0 to 9):

It might be easier to see what’s going on looking instead at this figure which shows Mn(M) instead of n(M).

You can see that the typical size of a halo increases with decreasing redshift, but it’s only at really high masses where you see a really dramatic effect.

The mass of the black hole responsible for the recently-detected high-redshift quasar is estimated to be about 2 \times 10^{9} M_{\odot}. But how does that relate to the mass of the halo within which it resides? Clearly the dark matter halo has to be more massive than the baryonic material it collects, and therefore more massive than the central black hole, but by how much?

This question is very difficult to answer, as it depends on how luminous the quasar is, how long it lives, what fraction of the baryons in the halo fall into the centre, what efficiency is involved in generating the quasar luminosity, etc.   Efstathiou and Rees argued that to power a quasar with luminosity of order 10^{13} L_{\odot} for a time order 10^{8} years requires a parent halo of mass about 2\times 10^{11} M_{\odot}.

The abundance of such haloes is down by quite a factor at redshift 7 compared to redshift 0 (the present epoch), but the fall-off is even more precipitous for haloes of larger mass than this. We really need to know how abundant such objects are before drawing definitive conclusions, and one object isn’t enough to put a reliable estimate on the general abundance, but with the discovery of this object  it’s certainly getting interesting. Haloes the size of a galaxy cluster, i.e.  10^{14} M_{\odot}, are rarer by many orders of magnitude at redshift 7 than at redshift 0 so if anyone ever finds one at this redshift that would really be a shock to many a cosmologist’s  system, as would be the discovery of quasars at  redshifts significantly higher than seven.

Another thing worth mentioning is that, although there might be a sufficient number of potential haloes to serve as hosts for a quasar, there remains the difficult issue of understanding how precisely the black hole forms and especially how long that  takes. This aspect of the process of quasar formation is much more complicated than the halo distribution, so it’s probably on detailed models of  black-hole  growth that this discovery will have the greatest impact in the short term.

One Response to “Haloes, Hosts and Quasars”

  1. First, a general comment. Redshift z is defined as one less than the ratio of the scale factor now to that at the time the light we see was emitted. Thus, in terms of the scale factor, the difference between redshift 7 and 8 is less than between 0 and 1.

    Second, with regard to black-hole growth, presumably it is important to know the amount of time available as a function of redshift. This, of course, depends on the cosmological parameters in a rather complicated way. Any discussion of this needs to take into account the uncertainties in the cosmological parameters and the corresponding uncertainty in the amount of time available.

    What do the figures look like for other cosmological parameters which are not ruled out?

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