Ordinary matter: Lost and found

Never mind about dark matter. Forget dark energy. Astronomers aren’t even sure of the whereabouts of most of the cosmos’ ordinary material: protons, neutrons, and electrons. New findings add to the evidence that two-thirds of this matter resides not in galaxies but in warm gas clouds that surround them.

HIDDEN MATTER. Simulation shows that most of the ordinary matter (green) in the cosmos today consists of gas glowing at invisible X-ray and ultraviolet wavelengths. R. Cen and J. Ostriker

Ordinary matter has posed a puzzle for many years. Observations of the early universe indicate that ordinary matter should account for 4 percent of all mass and energy, with dark matter and dark energy making up the rest. Yet astronomers looking for normal matter in galaxies have found only about one-third of this amount.

Simulations have suggested that the missing matter lies within gas clouds that are hard to find because they shine faintly and only at ultraviolet and X-ray wavelengths (SN: 6/20/98, p. 390). That’s why several teams have looked for these clouds not via the light they emit, but by the light they absorb (SN: 8/10/02, p. 83: Visible Matter: Once lost but now found). In the Feb. 13 Nature, researchers describe the latest effort, using the Far Ultraviolet Explorer Satellite. By recording the spectra of several distant quasars whose light pierces the Milky Way, the spacecraft revealed some 50 ultraviolet-absorbing gas clouds around our galaxy.

“This warm fog may hold as much as two-thirds of the normal matter within the neighborhood of the Milky Way,” says study coauthor Fabrizio Nicastro of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. If this is true elsewhere, it could explain the cosmic shortfall.

Nicastro adds that mapping ordinary matter will reveal the location of dark matter. This invisible material is believed to be the stuff that coalesced first in the universe, which triggered ordinary matter to clump into galaxies.


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