Two teams found the first detection of the roughly half of the normal matter in our universe – protons, neutrons and electrons – unaccounted for by previous observations of stars, galaxies and other bright objects in space.
Two separate teams found the missing matter – made of particles called baryons rather than dark matter – linking galaxies together through filaments of hot, diffuse gas.
“The missing baryon problem is solved,” says Hideki Tanimura at the Institute of Space Astrophysics in Orsay, France, leader of one of the groups. The other team was led by Anna de Graaff at the University of Edinburgh, UK.
Both teams took advantage of a phenomenon called the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect that occurs when light left over from the big bang passes through hot gas. As the light travels, some of it scatters off the electrons in the gas, leaving a dim patch in the cosmic microwave background – our snapshot of the remnants from the birth of the cosmos.
Both teams selected pairs of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey that were expected to be connected by a strand of baryons. They stacked the Planck signals for the areas between the galaxies, making the individually faint strands detectable en masse.
Tanimura’s team stacked data on 260,000 pairs of galaxies, and de Graaff’s group used over a million pairs. Both teams found definitive evidence of gas filaments between the galaxies. Tanimura’s group found they were almost three times denser than the mean for normal matter in the universe, and de Graaf’s group found they were six times denser – confirmation that the gas in these areas is dense enough to form filaments.
Abstract -Missing baryons in the cosmic web revealed by the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect
Observations of galaxies and galaxy clusters in the local universe can account for only 10% of the baryon content inferred from measurements of the cosmic microwave background and from nuclear reactions in the early Universe. Locating the remaining 90% of baryons has been one of the major challenges in modern cosmology. Cosmological simulations predict that the ‘missing baryons’ are spread throughout filamentary structures in the cosmic web, forming a low density gas with temperatures of 105−107 K. Previous attempts to observe this warm-hot filamentary gas via X-ray emission or absorption in quasar spectra have proven difficult due to its diffuse and low-temperature nature. Here we report a 5.1σ detection of warm-hot baryons in stacked filaments through the thermal Sunyaev-Zel’dovich (SZ) effect, which arises from the distortion in the cosmic microwave background spectrum due to ionised gas. The estimated gas density in these 15 Megaparsec-long filaments is approximately 6 times the mean universal baryon density, and overall this can account for ∼30% of the total baryon content of the Universe. This result establishes the presence of ionised gas in large-scale filaments, and suggests that the missing baryons problem may be resolved via observations of the cosmic web.