Lower-luminosity Galaxies Could Reionize the Universe: Very Steep Faint-end Slopes to the UV Luminosity Functions at z>= 5-8 from the HUDF09 WFC3/IR Observations

Bouwens, R. J., Illingworth, G. D., Oesch, P. A., Trenti, M., Labbe, I., Franx, M., Stiavelli, M., Carollo, C. M., van Dokkum, P., and Magee, D.


The HUDF09 data are the deepest near-IR observations ever, reaching to 29.5 mag. Luminosity functions (LFs) from these new HUDF09 data for 132 z ~ 7 and z ~ 8 galaxies are combined with new LFs for z ~ 5-6 galaxies and the earlier z ~ 4 LF to reach to very faint limits (<0.05 L* z = 3). The faint-end slopes α are steep: -1.79 ± 0.12 (z ~ 5), -1.73 ± 0.20 (z ~ 6), -2.01 ± 0.21 (z ~ 7), and -1.91 ± 0.32 (z ~ 8). Slopes α <~ -2 lead to formally divergent UV fluxes, though galaxies are not expected to form below ~ - 10 AB mag. These results have important implications for reionization. The weighted mean slope at z ~ 6-8 is -1.87 ± 0.13. For such steep slopes, and a faint-end limit of -10 AB mag, galaxies provide a very large UV ionizing photon flux. While current results show that galaxies can reionize the universe by z ~ 6, matching the Thomson optical depths is more challenging. Extrapolating the current LF evolution to z > 8, taking α to be -1.87 ± 0.13 (the mean value at z ~ 6-8), and adopting typical parameters, we derive Thomson optical depths of 0.061+0.009- 0.006. However, this result will change if the faint-end slope α is not constant with redshift. We test this hypothesis and find a weak, though uncertain, trend to steeper slopes at earlier times (dα/dz ~ -0.05 ± 0.04) that would increase the Thomson optical depths to 0.079+0.063- 0.017, consistent with recent WMAP estimates (τ = 0.088 ± 0.015). It may thus not be necessary to resort to extreme assumptions about the escape fraction or clumping factor. Nevertheless, the uncertainties remain large. Deeper WFC3/IR+ACS observations can further constrain the UV ionizing flux from faint galaxies.

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