If there were equal amounts of matter and anti-matter in the universe, it would be easy to deduce that the universe has a net charge of zero, since a defining ‘opposite’ of matter and anti-matter is charge. So if a particle has charge, its anti-particle will have an equal but opposite charge. For example, protons have a positive charge – while anti-protons have a negative charge.
But it’s not apparent that there is a lot of anti-matter around as neither the cosmic microwave background, nor the more contemporary universe contain evidence of annihilation borders – where contact between regions of large scale matter and large scale anti-matter should produce bright outbursts of gamma rays.
So, since we do apparently live in a matter-dominated universe – the question of whether the universe has a net charge of zero is an open question.
It’s reasonable to assume that dark matter has either a net zero charge – or just no charge at all – simply because it is dark. Charged particles and larger objects like stars with dynamic mixtures of positive and negative charges, produce electromagnetic fields and electromagnetic radiation.
So, perhaps we can constrain the question of whether the universe has a net charge of zero to just asking whether the total sum of all non-dark matter has. We know that most cold, static matter – that is in an atomic, rather than a plasma, form – should have a net charge of zero, since atoms have equal numbers of positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons.
Stars composed of hot plasma might also be assumed to have a net charge of zero, since they are the product of accreted cold, atomic material which has been compressed and heated to create a plasma of dissociated nuclei (+ve) and electrons (-ve).
The principle of charge conservation (which is accredited to Benjamin Franklin) has it that the amount of charge in a system is always conserved, so that the amount flowing in will equal the amount flowing out.
An experiment which has been suggested to enable measurement of the net charge of the universe, involves looking at the solar system as a charge-conserving system, where the amount flowing in is carried by charged particles in cosmic rays – while the amount flowing out is carried by charged particles in the Sun’s solar wind.
If we then look at a cool, solid object like the Moon, which has no magnetic field or atmosphere to deflect charged particles, it should be possible to estimate the net contribution of charge delivered by cosmic rays and by solar wind. And when the Moon is shadowed by the tail of the Earth’s magnetosphere, it should be possible to detect the flux attributable to just cosmic rays – which should represent the charge status of the wider universe.
Drawing on data collected from sources including Apollo surface experiments, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the WIND spacecraft and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer flown on a space shuttle (STS 91), the surprising finding is a net overbalance of positive charges arriving from deep space, implying that there is an overall charge imbalance in the cosmos.
Either that or a negative charge flux occurs at energy levels lower than the threshold of measurement that was achievable in this study. So perhaps this study is a bit inconclusive, but the question of whether the universe has a net charge of zero still remains an open question.
Further reading: Simon, M.J. and Ulbricht, J. (2010) Generating an electrical potential on the Moon by cosmic rays and solar wind?