Witnessing a galaxy directly contributing to the reionisation of the Universe
Distant luminous Lyman-α emitters (LAEs) are excellent targets for spectroscopic observations of galaxies in the epoch of reionisation (EoR). We present deep high-resolution (R = 5000) VLT/X-shooter observations, along with an extensive collection of photometric data of COLA1, a proposed double peaked LAE at z = 6.6. We rule out the possibility that COLA1’s emission line is an [OII] doublet at z = 1.475 on the basis of i) the asymmetric red line-profile and flux ratio of the peaks (blue/red=0.31 ± 0.03) and ii) an unphysical [OII]/Hα ratio ([OII]/Hα > 22). We show that COLA1’s observed B-band flux is explained by a faint extended foreground LAE, for which we detect Lyα and [OIII] at z = 2.142. We thus conclude that COLA1 is a real double-peaked LAE at z = 6.593, the first discovered at z > 6. COLA1 is UV luminous (M1500 = −21.6 ± 0.3), has a high equivalent width (EW0,Lyα = 120−40+50 Å) and very compact Lyα emission (r50,Lyα = 0.33−0.04+0.07 kpc). Relatively weak inferred Hβ+[OIII] line-emission from Spitzer/IRAC indicates an extremely low metallicity of Z < 1/20 Z⊙ or reduced strength of nebular lines due to high escape of ionising photons. The small Lyα peak separation of 220 ± 20 km s−1 implies a low HI column density and an ionising photon escape fraction of ≈15 − 30%, providing the first direct evidence that such galaxies contribute actively to the reionisation of the Universe at z > 6. Based on simple estimates, we find that COLA1 could have provided just enough photons to reionise its own ≈0.3 pMpc (2.3 cMpc) bubble, allowing the blue Lyα line to be observed. However, we also discuss alternative scenarios explaining the detected double peaked nature of COLA1. Our results show that future high-resolution observations of statistical samples of double peaked LAEs at z > 5 are a promising probe of the occurrence of ionised regions around galaxies in the EoR.