Jan 31, 2016 I Paul Seaburn

The Mysterious Giant Invisible Structures of the Milky Way

Scientists have counted up all of the matter that can be seen in the universe and 4 percent appears to be missing. In order to not be accused of being wrong or of hiding the matter for their own personal use, they’ve come up with a reason for the missing matter – it’s invisible, it’s huge and it’s in our own Milky Way galaxy.

According to their new paper published in the journal Science, astronomers using the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) Compact Array telescope at the Paul Wild Observatory in Narrabri, NSW (500 km northwest of Sydney), expanded on previous research on the missing matter by using a technique called the “lensing” effect.

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A depiction of the lensing effect that helped astronomers find the invisible structures

The astronomers were observing a quasar inside galaxy PKS 1939–315 in June 2014 when they noticed the light from it was being refracted by something that distorted its radio wavelength band but mysteriously had no effect on the brightness of its light, which meant whatever was doing the distortion was invisible.

What are these things and how many are there?

It’s all guesswork at this stage [and] there could be many thousands of these in the galaxy.

That’s a quote from lead study author Keith Bannister. The team’s best guess is that they’re large misshapen blobs, possibly cooled gas clouds. Some were shaped like flat sheets while others were described as “noodles” with hollow centers (possible movie title: The Giant Invisible Rigatoni From Outer Space!).

While they don’t quite know what they are, the team knows where they are and how fast they’re moving. These giant invisible blobs are approximately 30000 light away and are crossing the galaxy at a speed of 50 km (30 miles) per second.

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Australia Telescope Compact Array searching for invisible gigantic blobs

And you can cancel that call to the universe's lost-and-found department … they also determined that the sum total of their matter closely adds up to what they found missing from the Milky Way.

Finally, before you start screaming “Dark matter!”, Bannister says these are definitely not dark matter but may be the solution to the “missing baryon problem.” Baryons are composite subatomic particles comprised of three quarks and, with protons and neutrons, make up approximately 99% of the mass in all atoms in the universe. After the Big Bang, the universe was one-sixth baryon matter. Today’s measurements show that half of that baryon matter is missing.

Are these invisible blobs the missing baryons? Bannister concedes that more work needs to be done to answer that question. And it will be done because there are two things we know for sure … astronomers love a mystery and hate to be blamed for losing things.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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