NRL Researchers Help Map the History of Star Formation with Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope

Researchers from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope Collaboration, including scientists at the U. S. Naval Research Laboratory, used Fermi to measure the rate of star formation through interactions of gamma rays with extragalactic background light, gaining insight into the star formation history of the universe. Research findings were published in Science Magazine Nov. 29.

The universe is 13.8 billion years old, with stars being born, living, and dying for most of that time. The stars create a relic light that fills the universe, known as the extragalactic background light or EBL. The EBL is made up of light from all the stars that have ever lived in the observable universe, even long after they have ceased to shine.

In 2010, Dr. Justin Finke of NRL’s High Energy Space Environment Branch was part of a team of NRL researchers that created a model for EBL. This model and a similar model created by collaborator Dr. Kari Helgason of the Max Planck Institut für Astrophysik (now at the University of Iceland) were used to convert the EBL measurement into a measurement of star formation history. The results using both models are similar, increasing confidence in the measurement.

EBL skymap

Constructed using nine years of observations by Fermi’s Large Area Telescope, this map shows how the gamma-ray sky appears at energies above 10 billion electron volts. The plane of the Milky Way galaxy runs along the middle of the plot. Brighter colors indicate brighter gamma-ray sources. Photo provided by NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

Using these results, the scientists were able to measure how many stars were formed over most of cosmic history.

The key to measuring EBL is through blazars, according to Finke.

“Blazars are super massive black holes that generate gamma rays,” said Finke. “These gamma rays interact with background light from stars that converts the gamma rays into pairs of particles.”

Gamma rays are the most energetic form of light. Each individual gamma-ray photon, or particle of light, seen by Fermi has energy billions of times more than the photons seen with the human eye.

“By determining how many gamma rays are missing from our observations and how many get transformed by interacting with starlight, we can measure how much of the starlight there is,” said Finke.
This process was done for a very large blazar sample, spread out over many different distances. Fermi’s Large Area Telescope is especially suited to measuring the blazars’ gamma rays and interactions with EBL.

“There is nothing else that can measure gamma rays like Fermi can in this energy range,” said Finke of the telescope’s capabilities.

This was the first measurement of the star formation history with gamma rays over such a large range of cosmic time. The recent measurement was also able to constrain the formation of the first stars in the universe, opening the door for future research projects according to Finke.

“The first stars formed in the very early universe were thought to re-ionize the universe, making the hydrogen in the universe go from mostly neutral to being mostly ionized,” said Finke. “Understanding that process is a major goal of the upcoming mission for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.”

The study shows that mapping the history of the stars helps NRL and other space scientists learn more about the universe’s past, while providing valuable information for space exploration in the future.

Fermi is supported by NASA and the Department of Energy in the US, with important contributions from institutions in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Sweden. The current research was led by Marco Ajello, Vadehi Paliya, and Abeshik Desai at Clemson University, Alberto Dominguez at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid in Spain, Kari Helgason at the Max Planck Institut für Astrophysik (now at the University of Iceland), and Finke at NRL.

Categories: