We present moderate-resolution Keck spectroscopy of quasars at z = 5.82, 5.99, and 6.28, discovered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). We find that the Lyα absorption in the spectra of these quasars evolves strongly with redshift. To z ∼ 5.7, the Lyα absorption evolves as expected from an extrapolation from lower redshifts. However, in the highest-redshift object, SDSSp J103027.10+052455.0 (z = 6.28), the average transmitted flux is 0.0038 ± 0.0026 times that of the continuum level over 8450 Å < λ < 8710 Å (5.95 < zabs < 6.16), consistent with zero flux. Thus the flux level drops by a factor of greater than 150 and is consistent with zero flux in the Lyα forest region immediately blueward of the Lyα emission line, compared with a drop by a factor of ∼10 at zabs ∼ 5.3. A similar break is seen at Lyβ; because of the decreased oscillator strength of this transition, this allows us to put a considerably stronger limit, τeff > 20, on the optical depth to Lyα absorption at z = 6. This is a clear detection of a complete Gunn-Peterson trough, caused by neutral hydrogen in the intergalactic medium. Even a small neutral hydrogen fraction in the intergalactic medium would result in an undetectable flux in the Lyα forest region. Therefore, the existence of the Gunn-Peterson trough by itself does not indicate that the quasar is observed prior to the reionization epoch. However, the fast evolution of the mean absorption in these high-redshift quasars suggests that the mean ionizing background along the line of sight to this quasar has declined significantly from z ∼ 5 to 6, and the universe is approaching the reionization epoch at z ∼ 6.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Astronomy and Astrophysics
- Space and Planetary Science