While physics nerds were caught up in yesterday's news that we've kinda sorta totally found the Higgs boson, another huge space mystery may have become somewhat less mysterious. Dark matter—the stuff that comprises the majority of the universe, but which we can't directly observe (for now)—may have finally been caught in the act.
While dark matter is generally accepted by scientists as a component of the universe, they've never directly seen the stuff, rather they've seen the effect of the elusive space goop through gravitational distortions on visible matter and radiation at large scales.
Dark matter, which is thought to comprise 84% of all the matter in the universe, has been theorized to play an important role in maintaining the structure of galaxies and clusters of galaxies. While scientists have observed what they believe to be dark matter clumps in the "nodes" of galaxies, researchers recently found for the first time what they describe as a "filament" or "bridge" of dark matter connecting two clusters of galaxies 2.7 billion light-years away.
This underlying invisible web that holds the structure of the universe together has long been theorized, but the research detailed in the current issue of the journal Nature may bring this dark skeleton into the realm of verifiable fact.
Utilizing telescope data from on observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, researchers analyzed 40,000 galaxies behind Abell 223 and 222 and found distortions in space time hinting at a long bridge of dark matter connecting the two clusters.
"I have to say the evidence is pretty strong," commented theoretical astrophysicist Manoj Kaplinghat, who was not involved in the study to The Boston Herald. "There have been other claims that have sort of gone away, but this one looks like the best one I've seen. As far as I can tell, this really is the first."
Why is this all important? It's the first proof of the underpinning structure of… well, of everything. This is the first observable proof of a grand web that holds this whole space shebang together.
"Dark matter really governs structure formation," said study leader Joerg Dietrich, an astrophysicist at the University Observatory Munich in Germany. "The galaxy clusters and the filaments are mostly made up of dark matter. The normal matter just follows the distribution of dark matter."
We're just knocking these grand mysteries of the universe down this week.