Cosmology from quasar surveys

On 4 June, 2013, in Outreach, Papers, People, Science, by admin

This blog post was written by Boris Leistedt.

Devoured from within by supermassive black holes, quasars are among the most energetic and brightest objects in the universe. Their light sometimes travels several billion years before reaching us, and by looking at how they cluster in space, cosmologists are able to test models of the large-scale structure of the universe. However, being compact and distant objects, quasars look like stars and can only be definitively identified using high-resolution spectroscopic instruments. However, due to the time and expense of taking spectra, not all star-like objects can be examined with these instruments, and quasar candidates first need to be identified in a photometric survey and then confirmed or dismissed by taking follow-up spectra. This approach has led to the identification and study of tens of thousands of quasars, greatly enhancing our knowledge of the physics of these extreme objects.

Current catalogues of confirmed quasars are too small to study the large-scale structure of the universe at sufficient precision. For this reason, cosmologists use photometric catalogues of quasar candidates in which each object is only characterised by a small set of photometric colours. Star-quasar classification is difficult, yielding catalogues that in fact contain significant fractions of stars. In addition, the unavoidable variations in the calibration of instruments and in the observing conditions over time, create fluctuations in the number and properties of star-like objects detected on the sky. These observational issues combined with stellar contamination result in distortions in the data that can be misinterpreted as anomalies or hints of new physics.

In recent work we investigated these issues, and demonstrated techniques to address them. We considered the photometric quasars from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and selected a subsample of objects where 95% of objects were expected to be actual quasars. We then constructed sky masks to remove the areas of the sky which were the most affected by calibration errors, fluctuations in the observing conditions, and dust in our own Galaxy. We exploited a technique called “mode projection” to obtain robust measurements of the clustering of quasars, and compared them with theoretical predictions. Using this, we found a remarkable agreement between the data and the prediction from the standard model of cosmology. Previous studies of such data argued that they were not suitable for cosmological studies, but we were able to identify a sample of objects that appear clean. In the future, we will use these techniques to analyse future photometric data, for example in the context of the Dark Energy Survey in which UCL is deeply involved.

Photometric quasars and some of their systematics


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