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The sparsely distributed hot gas that exists in the space between galaxies, the intergalactic medium, is ionized. The question is, how? Astronomers know that once the early universe expanded and cooled enough, hydrogen (its main constituent) recombined into neutral atoms. Then, once newly formed massive stars began to shine in the so-called "era of reionization," their extreme ultraviolet radiation presumably ionized the gas in processes that continue today. One of the key steps, however, is not well understood, namely the extent to which the stellar ionizing radiation escapes from the galaxies into the IGM. Only if the fraction escaping was high enough during the era of reionization could starlight have done the job, otherwise some other significant source of ionizing radiation is required. That might imply the existence of an important population of more exotic objects like faint quasars, X-ray binary stars, or perhaps even decaying/annihilating particles.
Direct studies of extreme ultraviolet light are difficult because the neutral gas absorbs it very strongly. Because the universe is expanding, the spectrum absorbed covers more and more of the optical range with distance until optical observations of cosmologically remote galaxies are essentially impossible. CfA astronomer Edo Berger joined a large team of colleagues to estimate the amount of absorbing gas by looking at the spectra of gamma-ray burst (GRB) afterglows. GRBs are very bright bursts of radiation produced when the core of a massive star collapses. They are bright enough that when their radiation is absorbed...
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