Earlier this year, astronomers nailed down their understanding of the intergalactic medium (IGM)—the superstructure that links the universe together in a glistening cosmic web. But there are clearly levels to the universe’s structure that we don’t even know anything about yet. The existence of dark matter and dark energy hint at this, but we don’t have to go that far to know we’re out of our depth. The inexplicably harmonious alignment of quasars tells us that.
Yes, quasars—the freakishly bright galactic nuclei that surround supermassive black holes in faraway galaxies—seem to somehow know where they are within the cosmic web, and orient themselves accordingly. We don’t know how. We don’t know why. And that’s incredibly exciting. As the European Space Organization’s article (appropriately titled “Spooky Alignment of Quasars Across Billions of Light-years”) explains:
The new VLT results indicate that the rotation axes of the quasars tend to be parallel to the large-scale structures in which they find themselves. So, if the quasars are in a long filament then the spins of the central black holes will point along the filament. The researchers estimate that the probability that these alignments are simply the result of chance is less than 1% …
‘The alignments in the new data, on scales even bigger than current predictions from simulations, may be a hint that there is a missing ingredient in our current models of the cosmos,’ concludes Dominique Sluse.
What might this missing ingredient be? That’s a great question—and if the data holds up, it’s a question we’ll no doubt be wrestling with for decades, and perhaps centuries, to come. What does seem clear is that there are some fundamental aspects of our universe about which we essentially know nothing. It’s an exciting time to get into astronomy, as a field, because we’re finally building the kinds of tools that might be able to bring us closer to answering these questions.