Missing Light Crisis: The Universe Seems a Little Too Dark

by Shannon Hall on July 9, 2014

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The Milky Way as seen from Devil's Tower, Wyoming. Image Credit: Wally Pacholka

The Milky Way as seen from Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. Image Credit: Wally Pacholka

There are few moments more breathtaking than standing beneath a brilliant starry sky. Thousands of small specks of light mark only the beginning of the vast cosmic arena, with its unimaginable vistas of time and space. The Milky Way, wrapping above in a cosmic sheet of colors and patterns, also hints that there’s more than meets the eye.

Most of us long for these dark nights, far away from the city lights. But a new study suggests the Universe is a little too dark.

The vast reaches of empty space are bridged by filaments of hydrogen and helium. But there’s a disconnect between how bright the large-scale structure of the Universe is expected to be and how bright it actually is.

In a recent study, a team of astronomers led by Juna Kollmeier from the Carnegie Institute for Science found the light from known populations of stars and quasars is not nearly enough to explain observations of intergalactic hydrogen.

In a brightly lit Universe, intergalactic hydrogen will be easily destroyed by energetic photon, meaning images of the large-scale structure will actually appear dimmer. Whereas in a dim Universe, there are fewer photons to destroy the intergalactic hydrogen and images will appear brighter.

Hubble Space Telescope observations of the large-scale structure show a brightly lit Universe. But supercomputer simulations using only the known sources of ultraviolet light produces a dimly lit Universe. The difference is a stunning 400 percent.

Computer simulations of intergalactic hydrogen in a "dimly lit" universe (left) and a "brightly lit" universe (right) that has five times more of the energetic photons that destroy neutral hydrogen atoms. Hubble Space Telescope observations of hydrogen absorption match the picture on the right, but using only the known astronomical sources of ultraviolet light produces the much thicker structures on the left, and a severe mismatch with the observations. Image is credited to Ben Oppenheimer and Juna Kollmeier.

Computer simulations of intergalactic hydrogen in a “dimly lit” universe (left) and a “brightly lit” universe (right) that has five times more of the energetic photons that destroy neutral hydrogen atoms. Image Credit: Ben Oppenheimer / Juna Kollmeier.

Observations indicate that the ionizing photons from hot, young stars are almost always absorbed by gas in the host galaxy, so they never escape to affect intergalactic hydrogen. The necessary culprit could be the known number of quasars, which is far lower than needed to produce the required light.

“Either our accounting of the light from galaxies and quasars is very far off, or there’s some other major source of ionizing photons that we’ve never recognized,” said Kollmeier in a press release. “We are calling this missing light the photon underproduction crisis. But it’s the astronomers who are in crisis — somehow or other, the universe is getting along just fine.”

Strangely, this mismatch only appears in the nearby, relatively well-studied cosmos. In the early Universe, everything adds up.

“The simulations fit the data beautifully in the early universe, and they fit the local data beautifully if we’re allowed to assume that this extra light is really there,” said coauthor Ben Oppenheimer from the University of Colorado. “It’s possible the simulations do not reflect reality, which by itself would be a surprise, because intergalactic hydrogen is the component of the Universe that we think we understand the best.”

So astronomers are attempting to shed light on the missing light.

“The most exciting possibility is that the missing photons are coming from some exotic new source, not galaxies or quasars at all,” said coauthor Neal Katz from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The team is exploring these new sources with vigor. It’s possible that there could be an undiscovered population of quasars in the nearby Universe. Or more exotically, the photons could be created from annihilating dark matter.

“The great thing about a 400 percent discrepancy is that you know something is really wrong,” said coauthor David Weinberg from Ohio State University. “We still don’t know for sure what it is, but at least one thing we thought we knew about the present day universe isn’t true.”

The results were published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and are available online.

About 

Shannon Hall is an aspiring science journalist and is an editorial intern at Sky & Telescope magazine. She holds two B.A.'s from Whitman College in physics-astronomy and philosophy, and an M.S. in astronomy from the University of Wyoming. This fall she will attend NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program.

Manu July 9, 2014 at 8:35 PM

Welcome back, Olbers =D

geokstr July 11, 2014 at 8:13 PM

Well, then, this missing light needs a name. In keeping with past practice, that is, naming things we just know have to be there but we can’t see them, we should call it “Dark Light”.

It has a certain ring to it, non?

RUF July 18, 2014 at 10:49 PM

“It’s possible the simulations do not reflect reality, which by itself would be a surprise…”

Really?

How can one account for something that is unknown in a computer simulation?

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