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Measurement of the small-scale structure of the intergalactic medium using close quasar pairs

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Science  28 Apr 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6336, pp. 418-422
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf9346

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Using quasar pairs to measure smoothness

Space between galaxies is filled with a tenuous gas known as the intergalactic medium (IGM). The presence of hydrogen atoms in the IGM at different redshifts imprints a series of absorption lines in the spectra of background quasars. Rorai et al. studied pairs of closely spaced quasars and quantified how similar their absorption lines are as a function of transverse separation and redshift. They thus assessed the smoothness of the IGM on relatively small scales—several times the size of a galaxy. The results constrain interactions between galaxies and the IGM, such as heating by ultraviolet photons.

Science, this issue p. 418

Abstract

The distribution of diffuse gas in the intergalactic medium (IGM) imprints a series of hydrogen absorption lines on the spectra of distant background quasars known as the Lyman-α forest. Cosmological hydrodynamical simulations predict that IGM density fluctuations are suppressed below a characteristic scale where thermal pressure balances gravity. We measured this pressure-smoothing scale by quantifying absorption correlations in a sample of close quasar pairs. We compared our measurements to hydrodynamical simulations, where pressure smoothing is determined by the integrated thermal history of the IGM. Our findings are consistent with standard models for photoionization heating by the ultraviolet radiation backgrounds that reionized the universe.

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