ACTIVE GALAXIES POINT TO NEW PHYSICS OF COSMIC EXPANSION
Investigating the history of our cosmos with a large sample of distant ‘active’ galaxies observed by ESA’s XMM-Newton, a team of astronomers found there might be more to the early expansion of the Universe than predicted by the standard model of cosmology.
According to the leading scenario, our Universe contains only a few percent of ordinary matter. One quarter of the cosmos is made of the elusive dark matter, which we can feel gravitationally but not observe, and the rest consists of the even more mysterious dark energy that is driving the current acceleration of the Universe’s expansion.
This model is based on a multitude of data collected over the last couple of decades, from the cosmic microwave background, or CMB – the first light in the history of the cosmos, released only 380 000 years after the big bang and observed in unprecedented detail by ESA’s Planck mission – to more ‘local’ observations. The latter include supernova explosions, galaxy clusters and the gravitational distortion imprinted by dark matter on distant galaxies, and can be used to trace cosmic expansion in recent epochs of cosmic history – across the past nine billion years.
A new study, led by Guido Risaliti of Università di Firenze, Italy, and Elisabeta Lusso of Durham University, UK, points to another type of cosmic tracer – quasars – that would fill part of the gap between these observations, measuring the expansion of the Universe up to 12 billion years ago.
Quasars are the cores of galaxies where an active supermassive black hole is pulling in matter from its surroundings at very intense rates, shining brightly across the electromagnetic spectrum. As material falls onto the black hole, it forms a swirling disc that radiates in visible and ultraviolet light; this light, in turn, heats up nearby electrons, generating X-rays.
Three years ago, Guido and Elisabeta realised that a well-known relation between the ultraviolet and X-ray brightness of quasars could be used to estimate the distance to these sources – something that is notoriously tricky in astronomy – and, ultimately, to probe the expansion history of the Universe.
Astronomical sources whose properties allow us to gauge their distances are referred to as ‘standard candles’.
The most notable class, known as ‘type-Ia’ supernova, consists of the spectacular demise of white dwarf stars after they have over-filled on material from a companion star, generating explosions of predictable brightness that allows astronomers to pinpoint the distance. Observations of these supernovas in the late 1990s revealed the Universe’s accelerated expansion over the last few billion years.
“Using quasars as standard candles has great potential, since we can observe them out to much greater distances from us than type-Ia supernovas, and so use them to probe much earlier epochs in the history of the cosmos,” explains Elisabeta.
With a sizeable sample of quasars at hand, the astronomers have now put their method into practice, and the results are intriguing.
Digging into the XMM-Newton archive, they collected X-ray data for over 7000 quasars, combining them with ultraviolet observations from the ground-based Sloan Digital Sky Survey. They also used a new set of data, specially obtained with XMM-Newton in 2017 to look at very distant quasars, observing them as they were when the Universe was only about two billion years old. Finally, they complemented the data with a small number of even more distant quasars and with some relatively nearby ones, observed with NASA’s Chandra and Swift X-ray observatories, respectively.
“Such a large sample enabled us to scrutinise the relation between X-ray and ultraviolet emission of quasars in painstaking detail, which greatly refined our technique to estimate their distance,” says Guido.