Saturday, May 28, 2011

Australian Grad Student Solves Universe's Missing Mass Problem...sort of

Image credit: NASA

When it comes to understanding the physical content of the universe, the world of cosmology and astrophysics is a confusing place, one in which all roads ultimately seem to lead down a path to something dark; dark matter, dark energy, dark fluid, it's all very strange. But aside from these elusive, and as of yet, still theoretical dark bits. The universe also seems to be missing around half of it's expected mass in "regular" matter as well; with stars and galaxies believed to account for a mere 10% of the observable universe's "normal", or baryonic matter. As confusing as that all sounds, mostly because it is, what the universe's missing mass problem ultimately boils down to is this, in order for current observations of our universe to comply with the dominant theories of the day, there just needs to be more stuff.

One major source for all this missing stuff, are massive cosmic structures called filaments, described as giant "strings" of baryons existing primarily in gaseous form which connect the seemingly empty space in clusters of galaxies. Though the matter contained within these galactic filaments was theorized to be low in density, but very high in temperature (approximately one million degrees Celsius) meaning, it should have been possible to detect the matter utilizing the x-ray spectrum, it had thus far only been described mathematically- until now.

22-year-old Australian grad student, Amelia Fraser-McKelvie, along with astrophysicists, Dr Jasmina Lazendic-Galloway and Dr Kevin Pimbblet, have managed to confirm the existence of this missing matter while analyzing a set of targeted x-ray data. Amelia, who is being credited with the initial find, was just three months into her summer internship when the discovery was made, and said the ‘Eureka moment’ came when Dr Lazendic-Galloway closely examined the data they had collected.

“Using her expert knowledge in the X-ray astronomy field, Jasmina re-analyzed our results to find that we had in fact detected the filaments in the results, where previously we believed we had not.”

While DR. Pimbblet, who will be supervising McKelvie for the remainder of her time at University, acknowledges that his student's find is primarily an academic one, he is also careful to point out that discoveries like this can often have an unforeseen impact on technologies, saying:

"The pure research has knock-on effects to the whole society which are sometimes difficult to anticipate."


"Whenever I speak to people who have influence, politicians and so on, they sometimes ask me 'Why should I invest in physics pure research?'. And I sometimes say to them: 'Do you use a mobile phone? Some of that technology came about by black hole research'."

Image Credit: NASA
Source: Science Daily, Cosmos , and

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