The quest to discover the most distant galaxies has developed rapidly in the last decade. We are now exploring redshifts of 6 and beyond, when the Universe was less than a billion years old, an epoch when the previously neutral intergalactic medium was reionized. The continuing discovery of galaxies at progressively higher and higher redshifts has been driven by the availability of large telescopes on the ground and in space, improvements in detector technology, and new search strategies. Over the past 4 years, the Lyman break technique has been shown to be effective in isolating z ≈ 6 star-forming i′-drop galaxies through spectroscopic confirmation with large ground-based telescopes (Keck, Gemini and the ESO VLTs). Analysis of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF-the deepest images obtained so far, and likely to remain so until the James Webb Space Telescope, JWST), has enabled us to explore the faint end of the luminosity function, which may contribute the bulk of the total star formation. The discovery of this i′-drop galaxy population has been used to infer the global star formation rate density at this epoch (z «6), and we are now beginning to constrain the contribution to reionization of the UV flux from these galaxies. Infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope has been used to determine the Spectral Energy Distributions (SEDs) from the rest-frame UV to the optical of some i′-drops, and constrain the previous star formation histories, masses and age of these sources. The indications are that much of the stellar mass of these galaxies might have formed in vigorous bursts at z > 6. The next big advances would be to test the population synthesis modelling of these z ∼ 6 galaxies through spectroscopy of the rest-frame optical (rather than crude broad-band SEDs), and also to push the observational horizon for galaxies further to directly explore star formation during the reionization epoch. JWST is likely to have a profound impact on realising these goals.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Physics and Astronomy(all)