Where Has All The Light In The Universe Gone?

Posted by on July 13, 2014 in Earth & Space, Sci-Tech, Science with 0 Comments

Sarah KnaptonThe Telegraph

Galaxies like M106 are not emitting enough light to produce the levels of ionised hydrogen that scientists have spotted Photo: REUTERS/Nasa

Galaxies like M106 are not emitting enough light to produce the levels of ionised hydrogen that scientists have spotted Photo: REUTERS/Nasa

The universe is a pretty dark place – but according to astrophysicists it is much too dark.

Scientists have been left scratching their heads after noticing there is a huge deficit of light.

The amount of light in the universe can be measured accurately by studying tendrils of hydrogen which become ionised, or charged, when they encounter ultraviolet light.

The more ionised hydrogen you can spot, the more light should exist.

But, according to a new study in Astrophysical Journal Letters, the hydrogen tendrils suggest there is far more ultraviolet light around than is being emitted by galaxies and quasars.

An astonishing five times too much, in fact, and it is leading astrophysicists to speculate that the photons could be coming from an “exotic new source”, or even decaying dark matter.

It means that 80 per cent of light in the universe is effectively missing.

“It’s as if you’re in a big, brightly-lit room, but you look around and see only a few 40-watt light bulbs,” noted Carnegie’s Juna Kollmeier, lead author of the study. “Where is all that light coming from? It’s missing from our census.”

Intriguingly, the mismatch only appears in the nearby, relatively well-studied cosmos.

When telescopes focus on galaxies billions of light-years away (and therefore are viewing the universe billions of years in its past), everything seems to add up.

The fact that this accounting works in the early universe but falls apart locally has scientists puzzled.

The light in question consists of highly energetic ultraviolet photons that are able to convert electrically neutral hydrogen atoms into electrically charged ions.

The two known sources for such ionizing photons are quasars – powered by hot gas falling onto supermassive black holes over a million times the mass of the Sun – and the hottest young stars.

Observations indicate that the ionizing photons from young stars are almost always absorbed by gas in their host galaxy, so they never escape to affect intergalactic hydrogen. But the number of known quasars is far lower than needed to produce the required light.

“Either our accounting of the light from galaxies and quasars is very far off, or there’s some other major source of ionizing photons that we’ve never recognized,” Kollmeier said.

“We are calling this missing light the photon underproduction crisis. But it’s the astronomers who are in crisis — somehow or other, the universe is getting along just fine.”

The anomaly emerged from comparing supercomputer simulations of intergalactic gas to the most recent analysis of observations from Hubble Space Telescope’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph.

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