Astronomy and Astrophysics – Astrophysics
4 pages, 1 PostScript figure, accepted for publication in ApJ Letters, 8 Dec 1997
We propose that a large fraction of the QSO Lyman limit absorption systems (LLS) observed at high redshift (z > 3) originate from gas trapped in small objects, such as minihalos, that form prior to reionization. In the absence of a strong UV flux, the gas is predominantly neutral and may form clouds with HI column density NHI > 10^18 cm^-2. Due to their high densities and high HI column densities, these clouds are not destroyed by the onset of the UV background at a later time. Thus, if not disrupted by other processes, such as mergers into larger systems or `blow away' by supernovae, they will produce LLS. We show that the observed number density of LLS at high redshifts can well be reproduced by the survived `minihalos' in hierarchical clustering models such as the standard cold dark matter model. The number density of LLS in such a population increases with z even beyond the redshifts accessible to current observations and dies off quickly at z < 2. This population is distinct from other populations because the absorbing systems have small velocity widths and a close to primordial chemical composition. The existence of such a population requires that the reionization of the universe occurs late, at z < 20.
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