Last week saw the first public release of data from the refurbished Hubble Space Telescope, and its new imaging camera (Wide Field Camera 3, or “WFC3”).
Over the past week, four papers have shown up on astro-ph using new WFC3 data of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (see the prescient comment by Brian Mingus in the original blog post):
All of these papers are based upon data released on September 9th, from a large “Treasury” program to extend the wavelength coverage of the Hubble Deep Field. The first two papers were produced by the team that actually proposed the observations, and the second two were from groups that were sitting around eagerly waiting for the first group’s data to be publicly released1.
All of the papers deal with the statistics and properties of extremely high redshift (i.e. distant and young) galaxies. The dominant technique for finding high redshift galaxies has been looking for “drop out” galaxies. These are galaxies that have essentially zero flux in blue filters, due to absorption from intergalactic gaseous Hydrogen, and significant flux in all redder filters (at wavelengths that are largely unaffected by the same gas). Higher redshift galaxies “drop out” of progressively redder filters, because the rest frame (un-redshifted) wavelength at which the gas absorbs the galaxy’s light appears redshifted to longer and longer (redder) wavelengths for highly redshifted galaxies. This technique was pioneered by Guhathakurta, Tyson, & Majewski in 1990, and put on the map as a technique for galaxy selection by Chuck Steidel throughout the 90’s.
These early works looked for “U-band dropouts”, which turn out to be star forming galaxies at a redshift of 3 (about 2.5 billion years after the big bang). Subsequently, people had the bright idea to just keep pushing the drop out technique to redder wavelengths, to look for ever more distant galaxies. However, this comes at a cost, since more distant galaxies tend to be much fainter, so you need to work harder to have statistically significant detections in the red filters, and strong contraints on the absence of detections in bluer filters. The new WFC3 data pushes this technique out of the optical and into the infrared, selecting galaxies at redshifts from 6 to 9, when the universe was 0.5-1 billion years old. (Note: in the picture above, each successive column shows an image taken at redder and redder wavelengths. The likely distant galaxies are those that show up in the rightmost three columns but none of the leftmost columns)
The new papers all find that at these early times, the star formation rate of the universe is on the rise. This isn’t too surprising, given that you’re getting so close to the beginning of the universe — early on, structure hasn’t really had much time to form, so naturally you should find that fewer galaxies have yet had time to go about their business.
All in all, these are nice results doing just what the new data was designed to do.
1 In Jackson Hole, I once saw a bald eagle sitting high in a tree above a stream. There was an osprey sitting lower down the same tree. The river guide said the eagle waits for the osprey to catch a fish, and then just steals the fish from the osprey.
2 After posting this, I found a nice write-up by Ron Cowan here, as well as discussion of the result from the always lovely Peter Coles here. There’s also a cute discussion of the stress involved in such publications over at andxyl’s place.