A homogeneous sample of sub-damped Lyman α systems — III. Total gas mass ΩH i+He ii at z > 2

Péroux, Céline ; Dessauges-Zavadsky, Miroslava ; D'Odorico, Sandro ; Sun Kim, Tae ; McMahon, Richard G.

In: Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 2005, vol. 363, no. 2, p. 479-495

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    Absorbers seen in the spectrum of background quasars are a unique tool with which to select H i-rich galaxies at all redshifts. In turns, these galaxies allow us to determine the cosmological evolution of the H i gas ΩHi+Heii, which is a possible indicator of gas consumption as star formation proceeds. The damped Lyman α (Lya) systems (DLAs with NH i = 1020.3 cm−2), in particular, are believed to contain a large fraction of the H i gas but there are also indications that lower column-density systems, called ‘sub-damped Lyα' systems, play a role at high redshift. Here we present the discovery of high-redshift sub-DLAs based on 17 z > 4 quasar spectra observed with the Ultraviolet—Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) on the Very Large Telescope (VLT). This sample is composed of 21 new sub-DLAs which, together with another 10 systems from previous European Southern Observatory archive studies, make up a homogeneous sample. The redshift evolution of the number density of several classes of absorbers is derived and shows that all systems seem to be evolving in the redshift range from z = 5 to z∼ 3. These results are further used to estimate the redshift evolution of the characteristic radius of these classes of absorbers, assuming a Holmberg relation and one unique underlying parent population. DLAs are found to have R* ∼ 20 h−1100 kpc, while sub-DLAs have R*∼ 40 h−1100 kpc. The redshift evolution of the column density distribution, f(N,z), down to NH i = 1019 cm−2 is also presented. A departure from a power law due to a flattening of f(N,z) in the sub-DLA regime is present in the data. f(N,z) is further used to determine the H i gas mass contained in sub-DLAs at z > 2. The complete sample shows that sub-DLAs are important at all redshifts from z = 5 to z = 2. Finally, the possibility that sub-DLAs are less affected by the effects of dust obscuration than classical DLAs is discussed