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April 27, 2017
Astronomers identified rare pairs of quasars right next to each other on the sky and measured subtle differences in the absorption of intergalactic atoms measured along the two sightlines. This enabled them to detect small-scale fluctuations in primeval hydrogen gas.(Credit: UC Santa Barbara)
Snapshot of a supercomuter simulation showing part of the cosmic web, 11.5 billion years ago. The researchers created this and other models of the universe and directly compared them with quasar pair data in order to measure the small-scale ripples in the cosmic web. The cube is 24 million light-years on a side. © J. Oñorbe / MPIA
The most barren regions of the universe are the far-flung corners of intergalactic space. In these vast expanses between the galaxies, a diffuse haze of hydrogen gas left over from the Big Bang is spread so thin there’s only one atom per cubic meter. On the largest scales, this diffuse material is arranged in a vast network of filamentary structures known as the “cosmic web,” its tangled strands spanning billions of light years and accounting for the majority of atoms in the Universe.
Now a team of astronomers including J. Xavier Prochaska, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, has made the first measurements of small-scale ripples in this primeval hydrogen gas. Although the regions of cosmic web they studied lie nearly 11 billion light years away, they were able to measure variations in its structure on scales a 100,000 times smaller, comparable to the size of a single galaxy. The researchers presented their findings in a paper published April 27 in Science.
Intergalactic gas is so tenuous that it emits no light of its own. Instead astronomers study it indirectly, by observing how it selectively absorbs the light coming from faraway sources known as quasars. Quasars constitute a brief hyper-luminous phase of the galactic life-cycle, powered by the infall of matter onto a galaxy’s central supermassive black hole. They thus act like cosmic lighthouses—bright, distant beacons that allow astronomers to study intergalactic atoms residing between the quasars location and Earth.
Because these hyper-luminous episodes last only a tiny fraction of a galaxy’s lifetime, quasars are correspondingly rare on the sky, and are typically separated by hundreds of millions of light years from each other. In order to probe the cosmic web on much smaller scales, the astronomers exploited a fortuitous cosmic coincidence: they identified exceedingly rare pairs of quasars, right next to each other on the sky, and measured subtle differences in the absorption of intergalactic atoms measured along the two sightlines.
“One of the biggest challenges was developing the mathematical and statistical tools to quantify the tiny differences we measure in this new kind of data,” said Alberto Rorai, a post-doctoral researcher at Cambridge university and lead author of the study. Rorai developed these tools as part of the research for his doctoral degree, and applied his tools to spectra of quasars obtained by the team on the largest telescopes in the world, including the 10-meter Keck telescopes at the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
The astronomers compared their measurements to supercomputer models that simulate the formation of cosmic structures from the Big Bang to the present.
“The input to our simulations are the laws of physics and the output is an artificial universe which can be directly compared to astronomical data. I was delighted to see that these new measurements agree with the well-established paradigm for how cosmic structures form,” said Jose Oñorbe, a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, who led the supercomputer simulation effort. On a single laptop, these complex calculations would have required almost a thousand years to complete, but modern supercomputers enabled the researchers to carry them out in just a few weeks.
“One reason why these small-scale fluctuations are so interesting is that they encode information about the temperature of gas in the cosmic web just a few billion years after the Big Bang,” said Joseph Hennawi, a professor of physics at UC Santa Barbara who led the search for quasar pairs.
Astronomers believe that the matter in the universe went through phase transitions billions of years ago, which dramatically changed its temperature. These phase transitions, known as cosmic reionization, occurred when the collective ultraviolet glow of all stars and quasars in the universe became intense enough to strip electrons off of the atoms in intergalactic space. How and when reionization occurred is one of the biggest open questions in the field of cosmology, and these new measurements provide important clues that will help narrate this chapter of the history of the universe.
Telescopes in this study:
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Lick Automated Planet Finder telescope, Mount Hamilton, CA, USA
The University of California, Santa Cruz, opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.
UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.
Search for extraterrestrial intelligence expands at Lick Observatory
New instrument scans the sky for pulses of infrared light
March 23, 2015
By Hilary Lebow
The NIROSETI instrument saw first light on the Nickel 1-meter Telescope at Lick Observatory on March 15, 2015. (Photo by Laurie Hatch) UCSC Lick Nickel telescope
Astronomers are expanding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence into a new realm with detectors tuned to infrared light at UC’s Lick Observatory. A new instrument, called NIROSETI, will soon scour the sky for messages from other worlds.
“Infrared light would be an excellent means of interstellar communication,” said Shelley Wright, an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego who led the development of the new instrument while at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics.
Wright worked on an earlier SETI project at Lick Observatory as a UC Santa Cruz undergraduate, when she built an optical instrument designed by UC Berkeley researchers. The infrared project takes advantage of new technology not available for that first optical search.
Infrared light would be a good way for extraterrestrials to get our attention here on Earth, since pulses from a powerful infrared laser could outshine a star, if only for a billionth of a second. Interstellar gas and dust is almost transparent to near infrared, so these signals can be seen from great distances. It also takes less energy to send information using infrared signals than with visible light.
UCSC alumna Shelley Wright, now an assistant professor of physics at UC San Diego, discusses the dichroic filter of the NIROSETI instrument. (Photo by Laurie Hatch)
Frank Drake, professor emeritus of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and director emeritus of the SETI Institute, said there are several additional advantages to a search in the infrared realm.
“The signals are so strong that we only need a small telescope to receive them. Smaller telescopes can offer more observational time, and that is good because we need to search many stars for a chance of success,” said Drake.
The only downside is that extraterrestrials would need to be transmitting their signals in our direction, Drake said, though he sees this as a positive side to that limitation. “If we get a signal from someone who’s aiming for us, it could mean there’s altruism in the universe. I like that idea. If they want to be friendly, that’s who we will find.”
Scientists have searched the skies for radio signals for more than 50 years and expanded their search into the optical realm more than a decade ago. The idea of searching in the infrared is not a new one, but instruments capable of capturing pulses of infrared light only recently became available.
“We had to wait,” Wright said. “I spent eight years waiting and watching as new technology emerged.”
Now that technology has caught up, the search will extend to stars thousands of light years away, rather than just hundreds. NIROSETI, or Near-Infrared Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could also uncover new information about the physical universe.
“This is the first time Earthlings have looked at the universe at infrared wavelengths with nanosecond time scales,” said Dan Werthimer, UC Berkeley SETI Project Director. “The instrument could discover new astrophysical phenomena, or perhaps answer the question of whether we are alone.”
NIROSETI will also gather more information than previous optical detectors by recording levels of light over time so that patterns can be analyzed for potential signs of other civilizations.
“Searching for intelligent life in the universe is both thrilling and somewhat unorthodox,” said Claire Max, director of UC Observatories and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “Lick Observatory has already been the site of several previous SETI searches, so this is a very exciting addition to the current research taking place.”
NIROSETI will be fully operational by early summer and will scan the skies several times a week on the Nickel 1-meter telescope at Lick Observatory, located on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose.
The NIROSETI team also includes Geoffrey Marcy and Andrew Siemion from UC Berkeley; Patrick Dorval, a Dunlap undergraduate, and Elliot Meyer, a Dunlap graduate student; and Richard Treffers of Starman Systems. Funding for the project comes from the generous support of Bill and Susan Bloomfield.
Please help promote STEM in your local schools.
UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.