The Footprints of Reionization

The emergence of the first stars in the universe must have been quite a spectacular sight. The standard lore is that the first stars were probably massive, bright, and short lived.

As remarkable as these stars must have been, as well as the second generation of stars to follow them, they would all have died very young, exploding only a scant million years after they formed. Fortunately for us, they left behind traceable signatures of their existence.

You see, the bright light from these stars shone to vast distances in all directions. Wherever the light encountered a hydrogen atom, which was very nearly everywhere, it would remove the electron from that atom. It would ionize that hydrogen atom. The ionized hydrogen would surround the star out to large distances.

As an analogy, imagine unknowingly walking across a a sidewalk filled with wet cement. Your footprint would be embedded in the drying concrete. Long after you left the scene to buy new shoes, the sidewalk would still bear the footprint long after the cement had dried. This would leave behind evidence that you were there.

Likewise, the first generations of stars ionized the hydrogen gas in its surroundings. As the time it takes for the electron to be reunited with its proton is very long, the hydrogen persists in this ionized state.

Thus even after the star had died and disappeared from view, that tell-tale "footprint" in the form of ionized hydrogen would remain as evidence that a hot star was once there. Eventually such stars would come to ionize _all_ the spare hydrogen in between stars in the whole universe, a process that we call “reionization.”

Astronomers can work out the epoch during which most of the hydrogen was ionized, which, in turn, tells them when those tell-tale first stars first walked the path in the sky.

Dr. Brenda Frye

About Dr. Brenda Frye

Brenda L. Frye is an observational cosmologist at the Department of Astronomy/Steward Observatory, University of Arizona. She earned her Ph. D. in Astrophysics from the University of California at Berkeley, assisted by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Her thesis work involved measuring the concentration of the total mass of visible plus dark matter in the fields of massive galaxy clusters, a program requiring the use of some of the largest telescopes in the world.

Moving a mile from her Ph. D. institution, she assumed a postdoctoral position with the Supernova Cosmology Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory under the direction of Professor Saul Permutter.

She then treked across the country to take a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship and a Princeton Council on Sciences and Technology Fellowship both at Princeton University.

Moving further east, she became a Lecturer in Physics at Dublin City University in Dublin, Ireland, where a number of European collaborations were formed.

From there she crossed back across the pond to the west coast of the U. S. to become a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of San Francisco.

Her travels have now landed her at her Alma Mater in Tucson, where she teaches and does research. The aims of her research continue to be to use gravitational telescopes in space as 'lenses' to study the properties of dark matter and those of distant galaxies back to when the universe was <900 million years old.

This blog is made possible by contributions from visitors like yourself. PLEASE help by supporting this blog.

Get the VOF Blog via email - free!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply