Quasars and the Intergalactic Medium at Cosmic Dawn

Xiaohui Fan, Eduardo Bañados, Robert A. Simcoe

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

62 Scopus citations


Quasars at cosmic dawn provide powerful probes of the formation and growth of the earliest supermassive black holes (SMBHs) in the Universe, their connections to galaxy and structure formation, and the evolution of the intergalactic medium (IGM) at the epoch of reionization (EoR). Hundreds of quasars have been discovered in the first billion years of cosmic history, with the quasar redshift frontier extended to z ~ 7.6. Observations of quasars at cosmic dawn show the following: The number density of luminous quasars declines exponentially at z > 5, suggesting that the earliest quasars emerge at z ~ 10; the lack of strong evolution in their average spectral energy distribution indicates a rapid buildup of the active galactic nucleus environment. Billion-solar-mass black holes (BHs) already exist at z > 7.5; they must form and grow in less than 700 Myr, by a combination of massive early BH seeds with highly efficient and sustained accretion. The rapid quasar growth is accompanied by strong star formation and feedback activity in their host galaxies, which show diverse morphological and kinetic properties, with typical dynamical mass lower than that implied by the local BH/galaxy scaling relations. Hi absorption in quasar spectra probes the tail end of cosmic reionization at z ~ 5.3-6 and indicates the EoR midpoint at 6.9 < z < 7.6, with large spatial fluctuations in IGM ionization. Observations of heavy element absorption lines suggest that the circumgalactic medium also experiences evolution in its ionization structure and metal enrichment during the EoR.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)373-426
Number of pages54
JournalAnnual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics
StatePublished - Aug 18 2023


  • cosmic reionization
  • galaxy evolution
  • supermassive black hole

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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