Archive for redshift

Haloes, Hosts and Quasars

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2011 by telescoper

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.

Bright and Early

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 29, 2011 by telescoper

Some interesting astronomy news emerged this evening relating to a paper published in 30th June issue of the journal Nature. The press release from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is quite detailed, so I’ll refer you there for the minutiae, but in a nutshell:

A team of European astronomers has used ESO’s Very Large Telescope and a host of other telescopes to discover and study the most distant quasar found to date. This brilliant beacon, powered by a black hole with a mass two billion times that of the Sun, is by far the brightest object yet discovered in the early Universe.

and the interesting numbers are given here (with links from the press release):

The quasar that has just been found, named ULAS J1120+0641 [2], is seen as it was only 770 million years after the Big Bang (redshift 7.1, [3]). It took 12.9 billion years for its light to reach us.

Although more distant objects have been confirmed (such as a gamma-ray burst at redshift 8.2, eso0917, and a galaxy at redshift 8.6, eso1041), the newly discovered quasar is hundreds of times brighter than these. Amongst objects bright enough to be studied in detail, this is the most distant by a large margin.

When I was a lad, or at least a postdoc, the most distant objects known were quasars, although in those days the record holders had redshifts just over half that of the newly discovered one. Nowadays technology has improved so much that astronomers can detect “normal” galaxies at even higher redshifts but quasars remain interesting because of their extraordinary luminosity. The standard model for how a quasar can generate so much power involves a central black hole onto which matter falls, liberating vast amounts of gravitational energy.

You can understand how efficient this is by imagining a mass m falling onto a black hole of Mass M from a large distance to the horizon of the black hole, which is at the Schwarzschild radius R=2GM/c^2. Since the gravitational potential energy at a radius R is -GMm/R the energy involved in bringing a mass m from infinity to the horizon is a staggering \frac{1}{2} mc^2, i.e. half the rest mass energy of the infalling material. This is an overestimate  for various reasons but it gives you an idea of how much energy is available if you can get gravity to do the work; doing the calculation properly still gives an answer much higher than the amount of energy that can be released by, e.g., nuclear reactions.

The point is, though, that black holes aren’t built in a day, so if you see one so far away that its light has taken most of the age of the Universe to reach us then it tells us that its  black hole must have grown very quickly. This one seems to be a particularly massive one, which means it must have grown very quickly indeed. Through observations like this  we learn something potentially very interesting about the relationship between galaxies and their central black holes, and how they both form and evolve.

On the lighter side, ESO have also produced the following animation which I suppose is quite illustrative, but what are the sound effects all about?

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field in Three Dimensions

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 4, 2010 by telescoper

I came across this video about the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (which I have blogged about before) and thought you might enjoy it. I think it’s fairly self-explanatory too!