Cosmic Fast Radio Bursts Detect Universe’s “Missing Matter” – Solving a Decades-Old Mystery

Bright Burst of Radio Waves

The FRB leaves its host galaxy as a bright burst of radio waves. Credit: ICRAR

Astronomers have used mysterious fast radio bursts to solve a decades-old mystery of ‘missing matter,’ long predicted to exist in the Universe but never detected—until now.

The researchers have now found all of the missing ‘normal’ matter in the vast space between stars and galaxies, as detailed today (May 27, 2020) in the journal Nature.


Astronomers have used a network of mysterious fast radio bursts (FRBs) to detect half of the Universe’s normal matter, missing until now. Credit: ICRAR with some footage supplied by CSIRO/Alex Cherney, ESO/y. Beletsky and ESO/R. Wesson.

Lead author Associate Professor Jean-Pierre Macquart, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), said astronomers have been searching for the missing matter for almost thirty years.

Fast Radio Burst Travels to Earth

The FRB travels from its host galaxy to Earth. Credit: ICRAR

“We know from measurements of the Big Bang how much matter there was in the beginning of the Universe,” he said.

“But when we looked out into the present Universe, we couldn’t find half of what should be there. It was a bit of an embarrassment.”

“Intergalactic space is very sparse,” he said.  “The missing matter was equivalent to only one or two atoms in a room the size of an average office.”

“So it was very hard to detect this matter using traditional techniques and telescopes.”

FRB Through Missing Matter

When travelling through completely empty space, all wavelengths of the FRB travel at the same speed, but when travelling through the missing matter, some wavelengths are slowed down. Credit: ICRAR.

The researchers were able to directly detect the missing matter using the phenomenon known as fast radio bursts—brief flashes of energy that appear to come from random directions in the sky and last for just milliseconds.

Scientists don’t yet know what causes them but it must involve incredible energy, equivalent to the amount released by the Sun in 80 years. They have been difficult to detect as astronomers don’t know when and where to look for them.

CSIRO ASKAP

CSIRO’s ASKAP measures the delay between the wavelengths of the FRB, allowing astronomers to calculate the density of the missing matter. Credit: ICRAR and CSIRO/Alex Cherney

Associate Professor Macquart said the team detected the missing matter by using fast radio bursts as “cosmic weigh stations.”

“The radiation from fast radio bursts gets spread out by the missing matter in the same way that you see the colors of sunlight being separated in a prism,” he said.

“We’ve now been able to measure the distances to enough fast radio bursts to determine the density of the Universe,” he said. “We only needed six to find this missing matter.”

Density Missing Matter

The density of the missing matter is calculated using the distance of the FRB from Earth and the delay between the wavelengths of the FRB. Credit: ICRAR

The missing matter in this case is baryonic or ‘normal’ matter—like the protons and neutrons that make up stars, planets and you and me.

It’s different from dark matter, which remains elusive and accounts for about 85 percent of the total matter in the Universe.

Co-author Professor J. Xavier Prochaska, from UC Santa Cruz, said we have unsuccessfully searched for this missing matter with our largest telescopes for more than 20 years.

Fast Radio Burst Network

A network of FRBs was used to measure the density of the missing matter. Credit: ICRAR

“The discovery of fast radio bursts and their localization to distant galaxies were the key breakthroughs needed to solve this mystery,” he said.

Associate Professor Ryan Shannon, another co-author from Swinburne University of Technology, said the key was the telescope used, CSIRO’s Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) radio telescope.

“ASKAP both has a wide field of view, about 60 times the size of the full Moon, and can image in high resolution,” he said. “This means that we can catch the bursts with relative ease and then pinpoint locations to their host galaxies with incredible precision.”

“When the burst arrives at the telescope, it records a live action replay within a fraction of a second,” said Dr. Keith Bannister from Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, who designed the pulse capture system used in this research.

“This enables the precision to determine the location of the fast radio burst to the width of a human hair held 200m away,” he said.

CSIRO ASKAP Telescope

CSIRO’s ASKAP telescope continues to detect new FRBs, adding to the catalogue of these mysterious objects. Credit: ICRAR and CSIRO/Alex Cherney

Associate Professor Macquart said the research team had also pinned down the relationship between how far away a fast radio burst is and how the burst spreads out as it travels through the Universe.

“We’ve discovered the equivalent of the Hubble-Lemaitre Law for galaxies, only for fast radio bursts,” he said.

“The Hubble-Lemaitre Law, which says the more distant a galaxy from us, the faster it is moving away from us, underpins all measurements of galaxies at cosmological distances.”

FRB Host Galaxy

A Hubble Space Telescope image of an FRB host galaxy, with the location of the FRB marked in red. This FRB was one of the network used to find the missing matter. Credit: J. Xavier Prochaska/UC Santa Cruz, Jay Chittidi (Maria Mitchell Observatory), and Alexandra Mannings (UC Santa Cruz)

The fast radio bursts used in the study were discovered using ASKAP, which is located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in outback Western Australia. The international team involved in the discovery included astronomers from Australia, the United States, and Chile.

ASKAP is a precursor for the future Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope.

The SKA could observe large numbers of fast radio bursts, giving astronomers greater capability to study the previously invisible structure in the Universe.

Reference: “Localized fast radio bursts complete the baryon census of the Universe” by J.-P. Macquart, J. X. Prochaska, M. McQuinn, K. W. Bannister, S. Bhandari, C. K. Day, A. T. Deller, R. D. Ekers, C. W. James, L. Marnoch, S. Osłowski, C. Phillips, S. D. Ryder, D. R. Scott, R. M. Shannon and N. Tejos, 28 May 2020, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2300-2

2 Comments on "Cosmic Fast Radio Bursts Detect Universe’s “Missing Matter” – Solving a Decades-Old Mystery"

  1. John Campbell | May 27, 2020 at 9:32 pm | Reply

    “We know from measurements of the Big Bang how much matter there was in the beginning of the Universe,” he said.

    You WHAT??! Oh no we don’t… and neither do you! No-one has or can “measure the Big Bang”! That is not how the mass discrepancy problem arose. It was observations of gravitational lensing that raised the problem- the lensing appeared too intense for the calculated masses of the lensing objects. Big Bang had nothing whatsoever to do with the issue!

    “But when we looked…, we couldn’t find half of what should be there. It was a bit of an embarrassment.”

    … kinda like looking for a real scientist these days.

  2. Agree with you completely john. This data does not explain the the percieved gravitational lensing when compared to mass. Who writes this stuff. Random bits of matter if “empty” space do not contribute to the masses of objects nor their gravitational effects.

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