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Did galaxies reionize the universe?


Schenker, Matthew Aaron (2015) Did galaxies reionize the universe? Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology.


The epoch of reionization remains one of the last uncharted eras of cosmic history, yet this time is of crucial importance, encompassing the formation of both the first galaxies and the first metals in the universe. In this thesis, I present four related projects that both characterize the abundance and properties of these first galaxies and uses follow-up observations of these galaxies to achieve one of the first observations of the neutral fraction of the intergalactic medium during the heart of the reionization era.

First, we present the results of a spectroscopic survey using the Keck telescopes targeting 6.3 < z < 8.8 star-forming galaxies. We secured observations of 19 candidates, initially selected by applying the Lyman break technique to infrared imaging data from the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) onboard the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). This survey builds upon earlier work from Stark et al. (2010, 2011), which showed that star-forming galaxies at 3 < z < 6, when the universe was highly ionized, displayed a significant increase in strong Lyman alpha emission with redshift. Our work uses the LRIS and NIRSPEC instruments to search for Lyman alpha emission in candidates at a greater redshift in the observed near-infrared, in order to discern if this evolution continues, or is quenched by an increase in the neutral fraction of the intergalactic medium. Our spectroscopic observations typically reach a 5-sigma limiting sensitivity of < 50 AA. Despite expecting to detect Lyman alpha at 5-sigma in 7-8 galaxies based on our Monte Carlo simulations, we only achieve secure detections in two of 19 sources. Combining these results with a similar sample of 7 galaxies from Fontana et al. (2010), we determine that these few detections would only occur in < 1% of simulations if the intrinsic distribution was the same as that at z ~ 6. We consider other explanations for this decline, but find the most convincing explanation to be an increase in the neutral fraction of the intergalactic medium. Using theoretical models, we infer a neutral fraction of X_HI ~ 0.44 at z = 7.

Second, we characterize the abundance of star-forming galaxies at z > 6.5 again using WFC3 onboard the HST. This project conducted a detailed search for candidates both in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field as well as a number of additional wider Hubble Space Telescope surveys to construct luminosity functions at both z ~ 7 and 8, reaching 0.65 and 0.25 mag fainter than any previous surveys, respectively. With this increased depth, we achieve some of the most robust constraints on the Schechter function faint end slopes at these redshifts, finding very steep values of alpha_{z~7} = -1.87 +/- 0.18 and alpha_{z~8} = -1.94 +/- 0.23. We discuss these results in the context of cosmic reionization, and show that given reasonable assumptions about the ionizing spectra and escape fraction of ionizing photons, only half the photons needed to maintain reionization are provided by currently observable galaxies at z ~ 7-8. We show that an extension of the luminosity function down to M_{UV} = -13.0, coupled with a low level of star-formation out to higher redshift, can fit all available constraints on the ionization history of the universe.

Third, we investigate the strength of nebular emission in 3 < z < 5 star-forming galaxies. We begin by using the Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) onboard the Spitzer Space Telescope to investigate the strength of H alpha emission in a sample of 3.8 < z < 5.0 spectroscopically confirmed galaxies. We then conduct near-infrared observations of star-forming galaxies at 3 < z < 3.8 to investigate the strength of the [OIII] 4959/5007 and H beta emission lines from the ground using MOSFIRE. In both cases, we uncover near-ubiquitous strong nebular emission, and find excellent agreement between the fluxes derived using the separate methods. For a subset of 9 objects in our MOSFIRE sample that have secure Spitzer IRAC detections, we compare the emission line flux derived from the excess in the K_s band photometry to that derived from direct spectroscopy and find 7 to agree within a factor of 1.6, with only one catastrophic outlier. Finally, for a different subset for which we also have DEIMOS rest-UV spectroscopy, we compare the relative velocities of Lyman alpha and the rest-optical nebular lines which should trace the cites of star-formation. We find a median velocity offset of only v_{Ly alpha} = 149 km/s, significantly less than the 400 km/s observed for star-forming galaxies with weaker Lyman alpha emission at z = 2-3 (Steidel et al. 2010), and show that this decrease can be explained by a decrease in the neutral hydrogen column density covering the galaxy. We discuss how this will imply a lower neutral fraction for a given observed extinction of Lyman alpha when its visibility is used to probe the ionization state of the intergalactic medium.

Finally, we utilize the recent CANDELS wide-field, infra-red photometry over the GOODS-N and S fields to re-analyze the use of Lyman alpha emission to evaluate the neutrality of the intergalactic medium. With this new data, we derive accurate ultraviolet spectral slopes for a sample of 468 3 < z < 6 star-forming galaxies, already observed in the rest-UV with the Keck spectroscopic survey (Stark et al. 2010). We use a Bayesian fitting method which accurately accounts for contamination and obscuration by skylines to derive a relationship between the UV-slope of a galaxy and its intrinsic Lyman alpha equivalent width probability distribution. We then apply this data to spectroscopic surveys during the reionization era, including our own, to accurately interpret the drop in observed Lyman alpha emission. From our most recent such MOSFIRE survey, we also present evidence for the most distant galaxy confirmed through emission line spectroscopy at z = 7.62, as well as a first detection of the CIII]1907/1909 doublet at z > 7.

We conclude the thesis by exploring future prospects and summarizing the results of Robertson et al. (2013). This work synthesizes many of the measurements in this thesis, along with external constraints, to create a model of reionization that fits nearly all available constraints.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Galaxies, cosmology
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy
Major Option:Astrophysics
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Ellis, Richard S.
Thesis Committee:
  • Hallinan, Gregg W. (chair)
  • Steidel, Charles C.
  • Scoville, Nicholas Zabriskie
  • Hopkins, Philip F.
  • Ellis, Richard S.
Defense Date:18 June 2014
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:08012014-181643065
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:8626
Deposited By: Matthew Schenker
Deposited On:07 Aug 2014 00:04
Last Modified:10 Feb 2016 19:02

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