Context. Establishing the number of faint active galactic nuclei (AGNs) at z = 4−6 is crucial to understanding their cosmological importance as main contributors to the reionization of the Universe.

Aims. In order to derive the AGN contribution to the cosmological ionizing emissivity we have selected faint AGN candidates at z> 4 in the CANDELS GOODS-South field, which is one of the deepest fields with extensive multiwavelength coverage from Chandra, HST, Spitzer, and various ground-based telescopes.

Methods. We have adopted a relatively novel criterion. As a first step, high redshift galaxies are selected in the NIR H band down to very faint levels (H ≤ 27) using reliable photometric redshifts. At z> 4 this corresponds to a selection criterion based on the galaxy rest-frame UV flux. AGN candidates are then picked up from this parent sample if they show X-ray fluxes above a threshold of FX ∼ 1.5 × 10-17 erg cm-2 s-1 (0.5−2 keV), corresponding to a probability of spurious detections of 2 × 10-4 in the deep X-ray 4 Ms Chandra image.

Results. We have found 22 AGN candidates at z> 4 and we have derived the first estimate of the UV luminosity function in the redshift interval 4 <z< 6.5 and absolute magnitude interval − 22.5 ≲ M1450 ≲ −18.5 typical of local Seyfert galaxies. The faint end of the derived luminosity function is about two to four magnitudes fainter at z ∼ 4−6 than that derived from previous UV surveys. We estimated ionizing emissivities and hydrogen photoionization rates in the same redshift interval under reasonable assumptions and after discussion of possible caveats, the most important being the large uncertainties involved in the estimate of photometric redshift for sources with featureless, almost power-law SEDs and/or low average escape fraction of ionizing photons from the AGN host galaxies. Both effects could, in principle, significantly reduce the estimated average volume densities and/or ionizing emissivities, especially at the highest redshifts.

Conclusions. At z = 4−6.5 we argue that, under reasonable evaluations of possible biases, the probed AGN population can produce photoionization rates consistent with that required to keep the intergalactic medium observed in the Lyman-α forest of high redshift QSO spectra highly ionized, providing an important contribution to the cosmic reionization.

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Notes/Citation Information

Published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, v. 578, article A83, p. 1-14.

© ESO, 2015

The copyright holders have granted the permission for posting the article here.

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Funding Information

We acknowledge financial contribution from the agreement ASIINAF I/009/10/0. This work is based on observations taken by the CANDELS Multi-Cycle Treasury Program with the NASA/ESA HST, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., under NASA contract NAS5-26555. Observations were also carried out using the Very Large Telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory under Programme IDs LP186.A-0898, LP181.A-0717, LP168.A-0485, ID 170.A-0788, ID 181.A- 0485, ID 283.A-5052 and the ESO Science Archive under Programme IDs 60.A- 9284, 67.A-0249, 71.A-0584, 73.A-0564, 68.A-0563, 69.A-0539, 70.A-0048, 64.O-0643, 66.A-0572, 68.A-0544, 164.O-0561, 163.N-0210, 85.A-0961 and 60.A-9120. This work is based in part on observations made with the Spitzer Space Telescope, which is operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology under a contract with NASA. Support for this work was provided by NASA through an award issued by JPL/Caltech. A.F. acknowledges the contribution of the EC FP7 SPACE project ASTRODEEP (Ref.No: 312725).

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