We investigate the prospects of extending observations of high-redshift quasi-stellar objects (QSOs) from the current z∼ 7 to z > 8 by means of a very wide-area near-infrared slitless spectroscopic survey, considering as an example the planned survey with the European Space Agency’s Euclid telescope (scheduled for a 2019 launch). For any QSOs at z > 8.06, the strong Lyman α line will enter the wavelength range of the Euclid Near-Infrared Spectometer and Imaging Photometer (NISP). We perform a detailed simulation of near infrared spectrometer and imaging photometer (Euclid) NISP slitless spectroscopy (with the parameters of the wide survey) in an artificial field containing QSO spectra at all redshifts up to z= 12 and to a faint limit H= 22.5. QSO spectra are represented with a template based on a Sloan Digital Sky Survey composite spectrum, with the added effects of absorption from neutral hydrogen in the intergalactic medium.
The spectra extracted from the simulation are analysed with an automated redshift finder, and a detection rate estimated as a function of H magnitude and redshift (defined as the proportion of spectra with both correct redshift measurements and classifications). We show that, as expected, spectroscopic identification of QSOs would reach deeper limits for the redshift ranges where either (0.67 < z < 2.05) or Lyman α (z > 8.06) is visible. Furthermore, if photometrically selected z > 8 spectra can be re-examined and refitted to minimize the effects of spectral contamination, the QSO detection rate in the Lyman α window will be increased by an estimated ∼60 per cent and will then be better here than at any other redshift, with an effective limit H≃ 21.5.
With an extrapolated rate of QSO evolution, we predict that the Euclid wide (15 000 ) spectroscopic survey will identify and measure spectroscopic redshifts for a total of 20–35 QSOs at z > 8.06 (reduced slightly to 19–33 if we apply a small correction for missed weak-lined QSOs). However, for a model with a faster rate of evolution, this prediction goes down to four or five. In any event, the survey will give important constraints on the evolution of QSO at z > 8 and therefore the formation of the first supermassive black holes. The z > 8.06 detections would be very luminous objects (with MB=−26 to −28) and many would also be detectable by the proposed Wide Field X-ray Telescope.