Universe's missing matter found in inter-galactic filaments

Discovery is major development in the field of astrophysics.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Jan 23, 2019
Scientists have discovered what was long considered "missing" ordinary matter in the universe in the form of oxygen gas filaments whose temperatures are approximately one million degrees Celsius.

All physical objects in the universe, including planets, stars, galaxies, and even black hole cores are composed of ordinary matter, also known as "baryons."

Until now, scientists were faced with a puzzle, namely, that the amount of matter theorists calculate was generated by the Big Bang did not match what was actually detected. Approximately one-third of the matter they determined should be present in the universe was missing.

Approximately ten percent of the universe's ordinary matter is found in galaxies while nearly 60 percent is located in the gas clouds between galaxies.

Several years ago Michael Schull of CU Boulder's Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS), who took part in this study, predicted the missing ordinary matter likely is present in web-like filaments known as the warm-hot intergalactic medium (WHIM).

To test this theory, he and an international team of astronomers led by Fabrizio Nicastro of the Italian Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF) and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics aimed a group of satellites at a quasar, 1ES 1553, using the extremely luminous active galactic nucleus, a supermassive black hole actively consuming and emitting large amounts of gas, as a type of spotlight.

"It's basically a really bright lighthouse out in space,"Schull said.

The researchers then turned the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to the places where they suspected the missing matter was located. To get a closer look at these locations, they observed them with the European Space Agency's (ESA) X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission (XMM-Newton satellite).

Through these observations, they found signatures of highly ionized oxygen gas with a density large enough to account for the missing ordinary matter when calculated for the entire universe even though the gas they actually observed is located between the quasar and our solar system.

Schull theorizes this gas was blown out into deep space over billions of years by quasars and galaxies.

To confirm their findings, the research team plans to aim satellites at other bright quasars.

"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," Schull emphasized.

The research team published their findings in the journal Nature.


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