Binary stars can provide the 'missing photons' needed for reionization

Xiangcheng Ma, Philip F. Hopkins, Daniel Kasen, Eliot Quataert, Claude André Faucher-Giguère, Dušan Kereš, Norman Murray, Allison Strom

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

119 Scopus citations


Empirical constraints on reionization require galactic ionizing photon escape fractions fesc ≳ 20 per cent, but recent high-resolution radiation-hydrodynamic calculations have consistently found much lower values ~1-5 per cent. While these models include strong stellar feedback and additional processes such as runaway stars, they almost exclusively consider stellar evolution models based on single (isolated) stars, despite the fact that most massive stars are in binaries. We re-visit these calculations, combining radiative transfer and high-resolution cosmological simulations with detailed models for stellar feedback from the Feedback in Realistic Environments project. For the first time, we use a stellar evolution model that includes a physically and observationally motivated treatment of binaries (the Binary Population and Spectral Synthesis model). Binary mass transfer and mergers enhance the population of massive stars at late times (≳3 Myr) after star formation, which in turn strongly enhances the late-time ionizing photon production (especially at low metallicities). These photons are produced after feedback from massive stars has carved escape channels in the interstellar medium, and so efficiently leak out of galaxies. As a result, the time-averaged 'effective' escape fraction (ratio of escaped ionizing photons to observed 1500 Å photons) increases by factors ~4-10, sufficient to explain reionization. While important uncertainties remain, we conclude that binary evolution may be critical for understanding the ionization of the Universe.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3614-3619
Number of pages6
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 11 2016
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Binaries: General
  • Cosmology: Theory
  • Galaxies: Formation
  • Galaxies: High-redshift
  • Stars: Evolution


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