The Universe’s Missing Matter. Found!

In the 1960s, astronomers began to notice that the Universe appeared to be missing some mass. Between ongoing observations of the cosmos and the the Theory of General Relativity, they determined that a great deal of the mass in the Universe had to be invisible. But even after the inclusion of this “dark matter”, astronomers could still only account for about two-thirds of all the visible (aka. baryonic) matter.

This gave rise to what astrophysicists dubbed the “missing baryon problem”. But at long last, scientists have found what may very well be the last missing normal matter in the Universe. According to a recent study by a team of international scientists, this missing matter consists of filaments of highly-ionized oxygen gas that lies in the space between galaxies.

The study, titled “Observations of the missing baryons in the warm–hot intergalactic medium“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature. The study was led by Fabrizio Nicastro, a researcher from the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF) in Rome, and included members from the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the Instituto de Astronomia Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, the Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica, the Instituto de Astrofísica de La Plata (IALP-UNLP) and multiple universities.

Artist’s impression of ULAS J1120+0641, a very distant quasar powered by a black hole with a mass two billion times that of the Sun. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

For the sake of their study, the team consulted data from a series of instruments to examine the space near a quasar called 1ES 1553. Quasars are extremely massive galaxies with Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) that emit tremendous amounts of energy. This energy is the result of gas and dust being accreted onto supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at the center of their galaxies, which results in the black holes emitting radiation and jets of superheated particles.

In the past, researchers believed that of the normal matter in the Universe, roughly 10% was bound up in galaxies while 60% existed in diffuse clouds of gas that fill the vast spaces between galaxies. However, this still left 30% of normal matter unaccounted for. This study, which was the culmination of a 20-year search, sought to determine if the last baryons could also be found in intergalactic space.

This theory was suggested by Charles Danforth, a research associate at CU Boulder and a co-author on this study, in a 2012 paper that appeared in The Astrophysical Journal – titled “The Baryon Census in a Multiphase Intergalactic Medium: 30% of the Baryons May Still be Missing“. In it, Danforth suggested that the missing baryons were likely to be found in the warm-hot intergalactic medium (WHIM), a web-like pattern in space that exists between galaxies.

As Michael Shull – a professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder and one of the co-authors on the study – indicated, this wild terrain seemed like the perfect place to look.“This is where nature has become very perverse,” he said. “This intergalactic medium contains filaments of gas at temperatures from a few thousand degrees to a few million degrees.”

Close-up of star near a supermassive black hole (artist’s impression). Credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesser

To test this theory, the team used data from the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) on the Hubble Space Telescope to examine the WHIM near the quasar 1ES 1553. They then used the European Space Agency’s (ESA) X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission (XMM-Newton) to look closer for signs of the baryons, which appeared in the form of highly-ionized jets of oxygen gas heated to temperatures of about 1 million °C (1.8 million °F).

First, the researchers used the COS on the Hubble Space Telescope to get an idea of where they might find the missing baryons in the WHIM. Next, they homed in on those baryons using the XMM-Newton satellite. At the densities they recorded, the team concluded that when extrapolated to the entire Universe, this super-ionized oxygen gas could account for the last 30% of ordinary matter.

As Prof. Shull indicated, these results not only solve the mystery of the missing baryons but could also shed light on how the Universe began. “This is one of the key pillars of testing the Big Bang theory: figuring out the baryon census of hydrogen and helium and everything else in the periodic table,” he said.

Looking ahead, Shull indicated that the researchers hope to confirm their findings by studying more bright quasars. Shull and Danforth will also explore how the oxygen gas got to these regions of intergalactic space, though they suspect that it was blown there over the course of billions of years from galaxies and quasars. In the meantime, however, how the “missing matter” became part of the WHIM remains an open question. As Danforth asked:

“How does it get from the stars and the galaxies all the way out here into intergalactic space?. There’s some sort of ecology going on between the two regions, and the details of that are poorly understood.”

Assuming these results are correct, scientists can now move forward with models of cosmology where all the necessary “normal matter” is accounted for, which will put us a step closer to understanding how the Universe formed and evolved. Now if we could just find that elusive dark matter and dark energy, we’d have a complete picture of the Universe! Ah well, one mystery at a time…

Further Reading: UCB, Nature

Astronomers Find the Missing Normal Matter in the Universe, Still Looking for Dark Matter, Though

For decades, the predominant cosmological model used by scientists has been based on the theory that in addition to baryonic matter – aka. “normal” or “luminous” matter, which we can see – the Universe also contains a substantial amount of invisible mass. This “Dark Matter” accounts for roughly 26.8% of the mass of the Universe, whereas normal matter accounts for just 4.9%.

While the search for Dark Matter is ongoing and direct evidence is yet to be found, scientists have also been aware that roughly 90% of the Universe’s normal matter still remained undetected. According to two new studies that were recently published, much of this normal matter – which consists of filaments of hot, diffuse gas that links galaxies together – may have finally been found.

The first study, titled “A Search for Warm/Hot Gas Filaments Between Pairs of SDSS Luminous Red Galaxies“, appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomic Society. The study was led by Hideki Tanimura, a then-PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, and included researchers from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), the Liverpool John Moores University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

All-sky data obtained by the ESA’s Planck mission, showing the different wavelenghts. Credit: ESA

The second study, which recently appeared online, was titled “Missing Baryons in the Cosmic Web Revealed by the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich Effect“. This team consisted of researchers from the University of Edinburgh and was led Anna de Graaff, a undergraduate student from the Institute for Astronomy at Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory. Working independently of each other, these two team tackled a problem of the Universe’s missing matter.

Based on cosmological simulations, the predominant theory has been that the previously-undetected normal matter of the Universe consists of strands of baryonic matter – i.e. protons, neutrons and electrons – that is floating between galaxies. These regions are what is known as the “Cosmic Web”, where low density gas exists at a temperatures of 105 to 107 K (-168 t0 -166 °C; -270 to 266 °F).

For the sake of their studies, both teams consulted data from the Planck Collaboration, a venture maintained by the European Space Agency that includes all those who contributed to the Planck mission (ESA). This was presented in 2015, where it was used to create a thermal map of the Universe by measuring the influence of the Sunyaev-Zeldovich (SZ) effect.

This effect refers to a spectral distortion in the Cosmic Microwave Background, where photons are scattered by ionized gas in galaxies and larger structures. During its mission to study the cosmos, the Planck satellite measured the spectral distortion of CMB photons with great sensitivity, and the resulting thermal map has since been used to chart the large-scale structure of the Universe.

IR map of the whole Galaxy showing the plane and bulge of the Galaxy full of stars and dust. Credit: SDSS

However, the filaments between galaxies appeared too faint for scientists to examine at the time. To remedy this, the two teams consulted data from the North and South CMASS galaxy catalogues, which were produced from the 12th data release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). From this data set, they then selected pairs of galaxies and focused on the space between them.

They then stacked the thermal data obtained by Planck for these areas on top of each other in order to strengthen the signals caused by SZ effect between galaxies. As Dr. Hideki told Universe Today via email:

“The SDSS galaxy survey gives a shape of the large-scale structure of the Universe. The Planck observation provides an all-sky map of gas pressure with a better sensitivity. We combine these data to probe the low-dense gas in the cosmic web.”

While Tanimura and his team stacked data from 260,000 galaxy pairs, de Graaff and her team stacked data from over a million. In the end, the two teams came up with strong evidence of gas filaments, though their measurements differed somewhat. Whereas Tanimura’s team found that the density of these filaments was around three times the average density in the surrounding void, de Graaf and her team found that they were six times the average density.

“We detect the low-dense gas in the cosmic web statistically by a stacking method,” said Hideki. “The other team uses almost the same method. Our results are very similar. The main difference is that we are probing a nearby Universe, on the other hand, they are probing a relatively farther Universe.”

This illustration shows the evolution of the Universe, from the Big Bang on the left, to modern times on the right. Image: NASA

This particular aspect of particularly interesting, in that it hints that over time, baryonic matter in the Cosmic Web has become less dense. Between these two results, the studies accounted for between 15 and 30% of the total baryonic content of the Universe. While that would mean that a significant amount of the Universe’s baryonic matter still remains to be found, it is nevertheless an impressive find.

As Hideki explained, their results not only support the current cosmological model of the Universe (the Lambda CDM model) but also goes beyond it:

“The detail in our universe is still a mystery. Our results shed light on it and reveals a more precise picture of the Universe. When people went out to the ocean and started making a map of our world, it was not used for most of the people then, but we use the world map now to travel abroad. In the same way, a map of the entire universe may not be valuable now because we do not have a technology to go far out to the space. However, it could be valuable 500 years later. We are in the first stage of making a map of the entire Universe.”

It also opens up opportunities for future studies of the Comsic Web, which will no doubt benefit from the deployment of next-generation instruments like James Webb Telescope, the Atacama Cosmology Telescope and the Q/U Imaging ExperimenT (QUIET). With any luck, they will be able to spot the remaining missing matter. Then, perhaps we can finally zero in on all the invisible mass!

Further Reading: MNRAS, arXiv,

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:

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