Are Supermassive Black Holes Hiding Matter?

Mapping the Universe with satellites and ground-based observatories have not only provided scientists with a pretty good understanding of its structure, but also of its composition. And for some time now, they have been working with a model that states that the Universe consists of 4.9% “normal” matter (i.e. that which we can see), 26.8% “dark matter” (that which we can’t), and 68.3% “dark energy”.

From what they have observed, scientists have also concluded that the normal matter in the Universe is concentrated in web-like filaments, which make up about 20% of the Universe by volume. But a recent study performed by the Institute of Astro- and Particle Physics at the University of Innsbruck in Austria has found that a surprising amount of normal matter may live in the voids, and that black holes may have deposited it there.

In a paper submitted to the Royal Astronomical Society, Dr. Haider and his team described how they performed measurements of the mass and volume of the Universe’s filamentary structures to get a better idea of where the Universe’s mass is located. To do this, they used data from the Illustris project – a large computer simulation of the evolution and formation of galaxies.

Illustration of the Big Bang Theory
The Big Bang Theory: A history of the Universe starting from a singularity and expanding ever since. Credit: grandunificationtheory.com

As an ongoing research project run by an international collaboration of scientists (and using supercomputers from around the world), Illustris has created the most detailed simulations of our Universe to date. Beginning with conditions roughly 300,000 years after the Big Bang, these simulations track how gravity and the flow of matter changed the structure of the cosmos up to the present day, roughly 13.8 billion years later.

The process begins with the supercomputers simulating a cube of space in the universe, which measures some 350 million light years on each side. Both normal and dark matter are dealt with, particularly the gravitational effect that dark matter has on normal matter. Using this data, Haider and his team noticed something very interesting about the distribution of matter in the cosmos.

Essentially, they found that about 50% of the total mass of the Universe is compressed into a volume of 0.2%, consisting of the galaxies we see. A further 44% is located in the enveloping filaments, consisting of gas particles and dust. The remaining 6% is located in the empty spaces that fall between them (aka. the voids), which make up 80% of the Universe.

However, a surprising faction of this normal matter (20%) appears to have been transported there, apparently by the supermassive black holes located at the center of galaxies. The method for this delivery appears to be in how black holes convert some of the matter that regularly falls towards them into energy, which is then delivered to the sounding gas, leading to large outflows of matter.

This artist's concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s impression of a supermassive black holes at the hearts of a galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These outflows stretch for hundreds of thousands of lights years beyond the host galaxy, filling the void with invisible mass. As Dr. Haider explains, these conclusions supported by this data are rather startling. “This simulation,” he said, “one of the most sophisticated ever run, suggests that the black holes at the center of every galaxy are helping to send matter into the loneliest places in the universe. What we want to do now is refine our model, and confirm these initial findings.”

The findings are also significant because they just may offer an explanation to the so-called “missing baryon problem”. In short, this problem describes how there is an apparent discrepancy between our current cosmological models and the amount of normal matter we can see in the Universe. Even when dark matter and dark energy are factored in, half of the remaining 4.9% of the Universe’s normal matter still remains unaccounted for.

For decades, scientists have been working to find this “missing matter”, and several suggestions have been made as to where it might be hiding. For instance, in 2011, a team of students at the Monash School of Physics in Australia confirming that some of it was in the form of low-density, high energy matter that could only be observed in the x-ray wavelength.

In 2012, using data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a NASA research team reported that our galaxy, and the nearby Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, were surrounded by an enormous halo of hot gas that was invisible at normal wavelengths. These findings indicated that all galaxies may be surrounded by mass that, while not visible to the naked eye, is nevertheless detectable using current methods.

And just days ago, researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) described how they had used fast radio bursts (FRBs) to measure the density of cosmic baryons in the intergalactic medium – which yielded results that seem to indicate that our current cosmological models are correct.

Factor in all the mass that is apparently being delivered to the void by supermassive black holes, and it could be that we finally have a complete inventory of all the normal matter of the Universe. This is certainly an exciting prospect, as it means that one of the greatest cosmological mysteries of our time could finally be solved.

Now if we could just account for the “abnormal” matter in the Universe, and all that dark energy, we’d be in business!

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society

Missing Matter Found! Fast Radio Bursts Confirm Cosmological Model

In July of 2012, researchers at the CERN laboratory made history when they announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Though its existence had been hypothesized for over half a century, confirming its existence was a major boon for scientists. In discovering this one particle, the researchers were also able to confirm the Standard Model of particle physics. Much the same is true of our current cosmological model.

For decades, scientists been going by the theory that the Universe consists of about 70% dark energy, 25% dark matter and 5% “luminous matter” – i.e. the matter we can see. But even when all the visible matter is added up, there is a discrepancy where much of it is still considered “missing”. But thanks to the efforts of a team from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), scientists now know that we have it right.

This began on April 18th, 2015, when the CSIRO’s Parkes Observatory in Australia detected a fast radio burst (FRB) coming from space. An international alert was immediately issued, and within a few hours, telescopes all around the world were looking for the signal. The CSIRO team began tracking it as well with the Australian Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) located at the Paul Wild Observatory (north of Parkes).

image shows the field of view of the Parkes radio telescope on the left. On the right are successive zoom-ins in on the area where the signal came from (cyan circular region).. Credit: D. Kaplan (UWM), E. F. Keane (SKAO).
Image showing the field of view of the Parkes radio telescope (left) and zoom-ins on the area where the signal came from (left). Credit: D. Kaplan (UWM), E. F. Keane (SKAO).

With the help of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan’s (NAOJ) Subaru telescope in Hawaii, they were able to pinpoint where the signal was coming from. As the CSIRO team described in a paper submitted to Nature, they identified the source, which was an elliptical galaxy located 6 billion light years from Earth.

This was an historic accomplishment, since pinpointing the source of FRBs have never before been possible. Not only do the signals last mere milliseconds, but they are also subject to dispersion – i.e. a delay caused by how much material they pass through. And while FRBs have been detected in the past, the teams tracking them have only been able to obtain measurements of the dispersion, but never the signal’s redshift.

Redshift occurs as a result of an object moving away at relativistic speeds (a portion of the speed of light). For decades, scientists have been using it to determine how fast other galaxies are moving away from our own, and hence the rate of expansion of the Universe. Relying on optical data obtained by the Subaru telescope, the CSIRO team was able to obtain both the dispersion and the redshift data from this signal.

As stated in their paper, this information yielded a “direct measurement of the cosmic density of ionized baryons in the intergalactic medium”. Or, as Dr. Simon Johnston – of the CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science division and the co-author of the study – explains, the team was not only to locate the source of the signal, but also obtain measurements which confirmed the distribution of matter in the Universe.

“Until now, the dispersion measure is all we had,” he said. “By also having a distance we can now measure how dense the material is between the point of origin and Earth, and compare that with the current model of the distribution of matter in the Universe. Essentially this lets us weigh the Universe, or at least the normal matter it contains.”

Dr. Evan Keane of the SKA Organization, and lead author on the paper, was similarly enthused about the team’s discovery. “[W]e have found the missing matter,” he said. “It’s the first time a fast radio burst has been used to conduct a cosmological measurement.”

As already noted, FRB signals are quite rare, and only 16 have been detected in the past. Most of these were found by sifting through data months or years after the signal was detected, by which time it would be impossible for any follow-up observations. To address this, Dr. Keane and his team developed a system to detect FRBs and immediately alert other telescopes, so that the source could be pinpointed.

artists rendition of the SKA-mid dishes in Africa shows how they may eventually look when completed. Credit: skatelescope.org
Artists impression of the SKA-mid dishes in Africa shows how they may eventually look when completed. Credit: skatelescope.org

It is known as the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), an international effort led by the SKA Organization to build the world’s largest radio telescope. Combining extreme sensitivity, resolution and a wide field of view, the SKA is expected to trace many FRBs to their host galaxies. In so doing, it is hoped the array will provide more measurements confirming the distribution of matter in the Universe, as well as more information on dark energy.

In the end, these and other discoveries by the SKA could have far-reaching consequences. Knowing the distribution of matter in the universe, and improving our understanding of dark matter (and perhaps even dark energy) could go a long way towards developing a Theory Of Everything (TOE). And knowing how all the fundamental forces of our universe interact will go a long way to finally knowing with certainty how it came to be.

These are exciting time indeed. With every step, we are peeling back the layers of our universe!

Further Reading: CSIRO, SKA Organization, Nature.