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A gamma-ray determination of the Universe’s star formation history

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Science  30 Nov 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6418, pp. 1031-1034
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat8123

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Gamma rays reveal the Universe's history

How many stars have formed in the Universe, and when did they do so? These fundamental questions are difficult to answer because there are systematic uncertainties in converting the light we observe into the total mass of stars in galaxies. The Fermi-LAT Collaboration addressed these questions by exploiting the way that gamma rays from distant blazars propagate through intergalactic space, which depends on the total amount of light emitted by all galaxies. The collaboration found that star formation peaked about 3 billion years after the Big Bang (see the Perspective by Prandini). Although this is similar to previous estimates from optical and infrared observations, the results provide valuable confirmation because they should be affected by different systematic effects.

Science, this issue p. 1031; see also p. 995

Abstract

The light emitted by all galaxies over the history of the Universe produces the extragalactic background light (EBL) at ultraviolet, optical, and infrared wavelengths. The EBL is a source of opacity for gamma rays via photon-photon interactions, leaving an imprint in the spectra of distant gamma-ray sources. We measured this attenuation using 739 active galaxies and one gamma-ray burst detected by the Fermi Large Area Telescope. This allowed us to reconstruct the evolution of the EBL and determine the star formation history of the Universe over 90% of cosmic time. Our star formation history is consistent with independent measurements from galaxy surveys, peaking at redshift z ~ 2. Upper limits of the EBL at the epoch of reionization suggest a turnover in the abundance of faint galaxies at z ~ 6.

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