Astronomers have discovered cosmic filaments in deep space that have been illuminated by a quasar – UM 287. This filament is part of the largest known gas cloud in the universe. They have also found that gaseous entities hypothesized to be a minimal part of the space between cosmic structures are much more massive than previously thought. Even though they are fundamentally difficult to observe, these filaments have given astronomers greater insight into how the universe developed from its inception almost 14 billion years ago.
Astronomers state that dark matter binds the galaxy together. Dark matter also binds the galaxies together by creating a vast connection of cosmic structures. Dark matter is the theoretical mass that accounts for the missing piece of all the mass in the observable universe, theoretical meaning dark matter neither emits any radiation nor does it reflect any light. Therefore, it cannot be seen by telescopes.
In computer-simulated models, filaments that form these cosmic super structures are outlined by a combination of dark matter and a small amount of atoms in the form of a low density gas, namely hydrogen or helium. Astronomers using the 10-meter Keck I Telescope at the W. M. Keck observatory in Hawaii have found a filament close to galaxy, around 11 billion light years away. Astronomer Sebastiano Cantalupo, astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his team were able to observe light being emitted by the gas in the filament due to a very luminous quasar in the background. This quasar was formed from the light and radiation created by the manipulation of matter in a black hole stemming from its nucleus.
Cantalupo and his team observed that there was nearly 10 times the amount of gas in the filament than models predicted. “This is a very exceptional object: It’s huge, at least twice as large as any nebula detected before,” Cantapulo stated. Researchers stated that the gas nebula extends two million light years across. This fluorescent mass gave astronomers the opportunity to discover the filaments which were illuminated by the quasar.
Although most of the universe consists of dark matter, it is believed that the formation of the universe is built upon a cosmic web of galaxies which is stated by the standard cosmological model of structure formation. Until now, these cosmic super structures have never been seen. Filaments are very difficult to observe because they are made of dark matter that gives off no radiation or light to detect. Astronomers can only observe these structures when light is refracted off of the gas surrounding them. However, this doesn’t allow astronomers to analyze how the gas is distributed. One explanation could be that the gaseous entities are much larger than previously predicted and that cosmic web collects at a denser rate than once thought. Researchers also state that the density is important to determine because it may affect the rate at which gas forms into galaxies.
Researchers will soon welcome two new instruments with which they can continue such monumental discoveries. The Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer is scheduled to be operational in October 2014 at the Very Large Telescope in Paranal, Chile. This instrument will be able to search for quasars that are even more remote than the UM 287. Xavier Prochaska from the University of California, Santa Cruz, along with Sebastiano Cantalupo, will join forces at the top of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea to reveal some of the universe’s best kept secrets. As research continues over the the next year, astronomers will attempt to discover even more cosmic filaments that have been illuminated by quasars.
By Alex Lemieux