Eureka! Astronomers find elusive dark matter using distant quasar as a flashlight
Accidental discovery may help solve a fundamental mystery of the universe.
Astronomers may have solved one of the deepest mysteries of the universe after observing a distant, high-energy object with the Keck telescope in Hawaii. After taking observations of a quasar in deep space, they found that its energy was illuminating a network of gas filaments which could be responsible for the universe's elusive "dark matter."
The structure of the universe in a computer model. The bright spots are galaxies and the purple filaments are made of dark matter.
Despite this, there is one troubling factor. Their models rely on the presence of matter, which at least up until now, has never been directly observed.
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This mysterious matter has long been assumed to exist because without it, the universe would not work the way it does. However, our inability to observe it directly has stumped researchers who have sought to discern its nature.
Now, scientists think dark matter could exist in the form of gas, and be aggregated in the filaments that appear to stretch between galaxies and clusters of galaxies.
Space is not a perfect vacuum, despite what you may have been taught in school. Space is filled with atoms of various sorts as well as subatomic particles, some of which simply pop into, and out of existence quite spontaneously, like bubbles in a glass of soda.
Of course, even in a nebula, a region where the dust and gas are well-concentrated, the material is still quite diffuse by human standards. If you could walk through a nebula, which is a region of dust and gas in space, usually created by the explosion of massive stars that can be larger than thousands of solar systems, and visible across millions of light-years of space.
In the current case, astronomers using the Keck telescope in Hawaii were observing a quasar that was 10 billion light years away from Earth. A quasar is a super-energetic galaxy with a super-massive black hole at the center, emitting massive amounts of radiation into space along a narrow beam, that is in this case, pointed at Earth.
That bean of light has taken 10 billion years to reach us on Earth. In the process, the waves of radiation were stretched by the expansion of the universe itself into a faint, violent light, which the telescope observed.
That faint light also helped them see a massive nebulous filament, at least twice the size of any nebula observed before, stretching across 2 million light-years. That means light from one edge of the nebula would take 10 million years to get to the other side.
The find was unexpected and subsequent observations, bolstered by modeling, revealed that gas probably connects to another galaxy in space. Such phenomena have been predicted, but never observed.
If accurate, then the filament, seen for the first time, could be the concrete evidence scientists need to complete their physical macro-model of the universe. It explains where all of the dark matter, believed to provide most of the mass in the universe, is hiding.
It would also confirm veracity of the popular model of the universe formed, specifically by means of the Big Bang. The Big Bang was originally suggested as the most reasonable explanation for the physical origin of the universe by Catholic priest and professor, Msgr. Georges Lemaitre.
In addition to supporting the Big Bang model of the universe's formation, the confirmation of the existence of dark matter and a better understanding of its nature, will help cosmologists predict what will happen at the end of the universe, at some incredibly distant time in the future.
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Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for March 2014
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