Astronomers have long known that in many surveys of the very distant Universe, a large fraction of the total intrinsic light was not being observed. Now, thanks to an extremely deep survey using two of the four giant 8.2-metre telescopes that make up ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and a unique custom-built filter, a research team including participants from the Department of Astronomy at Stockholm University has determined that a large fraction of galaxies whose light took 10 billion years to reach us have gone undiscovered. The results are published in the latest issue of Nature with Matthew Hayes (who defended his doctoral thesis at the Department of Astronomy, Stockholm University, in 2007) as main author.

Astronomers frequently use the strong, characteristic “fingerprint” of light emitted by hydrogen known as the Lyman-alpha line, to probe the amount of stars formed in the very distant Universe. Yet there have long been suspicions that many distant galaxies go unnoticed in these surveys. A new VLT survey demonstrates for the first time that this is exactly what is happening. Most of the Lyman-alpha light is trapped within the galaxy that emits it, and 90% of galaxies do not show up in Lyman-alpha surveys.

To figure out how much of the total luminosity was missed, Hayes and his team used the FORS camera at the VLT and a custom-built narrowband filter to measure this Lyman-alpha light, following the methodology of standard Lyman-alpha surveys. Then, using the new HAWK-I camera, attached to another VLT Unit Telescope, they surveyed the same area of space for light emitted at a different wavelength, also by glowing hydrogen, and known as the H-alpha line. They specifically looked at galaxies whose light has been travelling for 10 billion years (redshift 2.2), in a well-studied area of the sky, known as the GOODS-South field.

The survey was extremely deep, and uncovered some of the faintest galaxies known at this early epoch in the life of the Universe. The astronomers could thereby conclude that traditional surveys done using Lyman-alpha only see a tiny part of the total light that is produced, since most of the Lyman-alpha photons are destroyed by interaction with the interstellar clouds of gas and dust. This effect is dramatically more significant for Lyman-alpha than for H-alpha light. As a result, many galaxies, a proportion as high as 90%, go unseen by these surveys.

Different observational methods, targeting the light emitted at different wavelengths, will always lead to a view of the Universe that is only partially complete. The results of this survey issue a stark warning for cosmologists, as the strong Lyman-alpha signature becomes increasingly relied upon in examining the very first galaxies to form in the history of the Universe.

ESO press release
Research paper Contact:

Göran Östlin, Tel: 08-5537 8513,
Jens Melinder, Tel: 08-5537 8538,