Friday, October 19, 2012

Ultraviolet Observations in CANDELS

The CANDELS project is primarily focused on observations at optical and near-infrared wavelengths, that is light that is received at the wavelengths that the human eye can see and a little bit longer. However, a fortunate trick of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) orbit also allows us to observe one of the five CANDELS fields at ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths, that is slightly shorter wavelengths than the blue end of the rainbow. UV observations are especially interesting, because very massive, very hot stars emit light strongly at those wavelengths.

How We Get UV Observations

Optical HST image of the Hubble Deep Field (in gray scale) with
Far-ultraviolet observations over layed (in purple). The Far-ultraviolet
are wavelengths even further in the blue direction than the UV
observations planned for CANDELS. Most galaxies are not detected
in the far-UV, despite the image being very deep, because their light is
shifted redward by the Doppler shift ("redshift"). Image Credit: Harry Teplitz
HST orbits the Earth, which means that most of the time when it wants to point at an interesting position on the sky, it can only do so during a fraction of the orbit during which the Earth isn't in the way. There are a few places on the sky, though, for which HST can point continuously during the entire orbit. The GOODS-North field in CANDELS is one of these special places. This means that we have about twice as much time available to observe that field than usual. CANDELS uses some of the extra time to observe GOODS-North in the UV.

As with all CANDELS fields, GOODS-North is observed many times, building up the signal through repeated observations. The schedule of the repetitions is designed for the supernova search. In practice, this means that even though we got the first UV observations in the spring of 2012, it will be spring of 2013 before we have enough data to see most of the UV objects in the images.

Major Science Goals

The most massive, young, and hot stars emit light strongly in the UV. 
This makes UV observations particularly effective for studying galaxies that are forming many stars.  These data allow us to find these galaxies and to study how they formed.  

In a little more detail, we have three major goals for the UV observations:

1.  Finding and studying strongly star-forming galaxies:  

The most popular way to find distant star-forming galaxies is to look for a strong feature in the distribution of their light across the spectrum.  This technique, referred to as looking for the "Lyman break" or "dropouts", will be familiar to people who have read about the rest of the goals for CANDELS, because it is also used to find galaxies in the very distant Universe. The advantage of adding UV data to CANDELS is that it allows us to use the same method to find galaxies when the Universe was about 25% of its current age. And, by using the same technique to find them, we can compare those galaxies directly to the much more distant ones.
In practice, the "dropout" technique means that we look for galaxies that are bright in most of the CANDELS bands, but are much fainter in the UV.  That is, they "drop out" of the UV. This is an indication that the UV light that they emit has been absorbed by neutral hydrogen before it reaches HST.

Once we find these galaxies, we can ask many intersting questions about them: Do they tend to be big or small? Do they tend to have a lot of dust? Do they tend to be in groups together or are they isolated?  

2.  The build up of galaxy structure from sub-galactic clumps

Galaxies grow and develop structure over time. Through gravitational effects, possibly including merging with other galaxies, they become like the galaxies we see today. We know that they undergo periods of intense star formation, but we are still learning about how they form their distinctive structures like spiral arms.  

There is evidence that as many galaxies grow, they form small clusters of hot stars, which are often called "clumps", which then migrate together into larger structures. Measuring the number, size, and brightness of these clumps can help us understand how galaxies form their structure. It can also help us distinguish which kinds of galaxies form through the mergers of smaller galaxies, and which kinds form primarily by themselves.  

Clumps have been studied extensively in galaxies when the Universe was about 25% of its current age. UV observations, which will see the hot stars that make up the clumps, will allow us to study them in galaxies later in the histroy of the Universe, when it was around 50% of its current age.

3.  How does ionizing radiation escape from galaxies?

There was a period of time in the relatively early Universe, known as the "dark ages", when most of the electrons and protons in the Universe were together in Hydrogen atoms. When galaxies began to form, they emitted a lot of energetic photons (referred to as "ionizing radiation") which broke apart the Hydrogen atoms, an event called "Reionization." Exactly how this happened is one of the great mysteries of cosmology. In particular, we don't know how the photons got out of the galaxies that contained the hot stars that emitted them.
In order to figure out how this ionization radiation escapes, we need to be able to observe it. The best way to do this is to look at galaxies that are similar to those which caused Reionization, but are a little closer so that we can study them. 

The CANDELS UV observations will allow us to make some of the best measurements ever taken of ionizing radiation escaping from galaxies.

The Next Steps

CANDELS is currently taking UV images, with a single pass of the GOODS-North field once every couple of months. It will take about a year to build up enough of these images to reach the sensitivity needed for the science goals described above.  We are eagerly waiting for next year, when we can begin to look at these exciting data and see what we can learn about strongly star-forming galaxies, the build up of galaxy structure, and how ionizing radiation escapes from galaxies. Stay tuned!

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