A new study using data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope suggests a cause for the mysterious glow of infrared light seen across the entire sky. It comes from isolated stars beyond the edges of galaxies. These stars are thought to have once belonged to the galaxies before violent galaxy mergers stripped them away into the relatively empty space outside of their former homes.
The findings disagree with another theory explaining the same background infrared light observed by Spitzer. A group led by Alexander "Sasha" Kashlinsky of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., proposed in June this light, which appears in Spitzer images as a blotchy pattern, is coming from the very first stars and galaxies.
In the new study, Cooray and colleagues looked at data from a larger portion of the sky, called the Bootes field, covering an arc equivalent to 50 full Earth moons. These observations were not as sensitive as those from the Kashlinsky group's studies, but the larger scale allowed researchers to analyze better the pattern of the background infrared light.
"We looked at the Bootes field with Spitzer for 250 hours," said co-author Daniel Stern of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Studying the faint infrared background was one of the core goals of our survey, and we carefully designed the observations in order to directly address the important, challenging question of what causes the background glow."
The team concluded the light pattern of the infrared glow is not consistent with theories and computer simulations of the first stars and galaxies. Researchers say the glow is too bright to be from the first galaxies, which are thought not to have been as large or as numerous as the galaxies we see around us today. Instead, the scientists propose a new theory to explain the blotchy light, based on theories of "intracluster" or "intrahalo" starlight.
Theories predict a diffuse smattering of stars beyond the halos, or outer reaches, of galaxies, and in the spaces between clusters of galaxies. The presence of these stars can be attributed to two phenomena. Early in the history of our universe as galaxies grew in size, they collided with other galaxies and gained mass. As the colliding galaxies became tangled gravitationally, strips of stars were shredded and tossed into space. Galaxies also grow by swallowing smaller dwarf galaxies, a messy process that also results in stray stars. "A light bulb went off when reading some research papers predicting the existence of diffuse stars," Cooray said. "They could explain what we are seeing with Spitzer."
More research is needed to confirm this sprinkling of stars makes up a significant fraction of the background infrared light. For instance, it would be necessary to find a similar pattern in follow-up observations in visible light. NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) might finally settle the matter for good.
"The keen infrared vision of the James Webb Telescope will be able to see some of the earliest stars and galaxies directly, as well as the stray stars lurking between the outskirts of nearby galaxies," said Eric Smith, JWST's deputy program manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The mystery objects making up the background infrared light may finally be exposed."
The image above shows a mysterious, background infrared glow captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Using Spitzer, researchers were able to detect this background glow, which spreads across the whole sky, by masking out light from galaxies and other known sources of light (the masks are the gray, blotchy marks).
The scientists find that this light is coming from stray stars that were torn away from galaxies. When galaxies tangle and merge -- a natural stage of galaxy growth -- stars often get kicked out in the process. The stars are too faint to be seen individually, but Spitzer may be seeing their collective glow.
The Daily Galaxy via NASA/Spitzer Space Telescope