Update (5/7/08): The image I had posted originally was distorted due to the wrong picture being made available to the press (like me!). I got a nice email from Joerg Dietrich, one of the astronomers who took the data, with a link to the correct image. I have updated both the image and the link. Sorry, and enjoy!
We've known for a long time that most of the Universe is invisible. 72.1% of it is dark energy, about which we know very little. 23.3% of it is dark matter, which was only recently tagged for real and for sure; we still don't know what particles make it up, but we're on the verge of finding out.
Normal matter -- us -- makes up just 4.6% of the Universe's energy and mass budget. But here we are! At least, here we mostly are: actually, we only see roughly half of the normal matter in the Universe. Stars, galaxies, and warm-to-middling gas aren't too hard to spot in general, but they only make up about half of what we expect to see of normal matter.
Where's the other half?
Let's turn the wayback machine to about 13.6 billion years or so ago. The Big Bang is old news at this point, but the first stars have yet to be born. Matter and energy are mixed everywhere, but some of it is different. What we now call dark matter is starting to clump together through gravity, forming long sheets and filaments far bigger than any galaxy we see today. This forms a grid, a framework, upon which normal matter starts to fall. Eventually, galaxies and clusters of galaxies and clusters of clusters of galaxies will form along these cosmic skeletons.
Fast forward to today. Bang! We see galaxies everywhere... well, not exactly everywhere. We see them lying in those long sheets and filaments, showing us where the dark matter structures are, like dew drops on a spider's web.
But that's just the stars and galaxies, remember? It's only half. Where's the other normal matter?
is was that it would be in the form of very hot gas strung out along those filaments as well. Hunting for it would be hard: it would be very diffuse, making it dim, and very hot, meaning it would only emit at short wavelengths, like extreme ultraviolet or X-rays.
Hey, we have telescopes that can see those!
And now we have (and more pictures can be found here). Astronomers upped the odds of finding the gas by looking around galaxy clusters, where it would be denser, and also doing something clever: looking near clusters that are near each other in the sky due to perspective. One would actually be farther away than the other, but peering very nearly along the angle separating them they would look like they're right next to each other. Since we'd be looking along a long thin cylinder of gas, that would make it appear brighter than if we saw it through its side.
The picture above shows the galaxy clusters Abell 222 and 223, both about 2.5 billion light years away. The visible light image just shows them as clumps of points, but remember: each dot is a massive galaxy like our own! The technicolor bit is from the XMM-Newton orbiting X-ray observatory, and shows the hot gas. Since these are separate clusters, they should be detached from each other. But instead, they're connected by a gas bridge of ten-million-degree plasma. That's the missing stuff! That's made up of baryons; particles like protons and neutrons, atomic nuclei and the like. Look around you: everything you see is made of baryons (and leptons, which include electrons), so this gas is your kin.
It's a bit more rarified, though: there are only about 30 baryons per cubic meter in this bridge. Good thing it's big (about 4 million light years wide) and we're looking down its length! But then, that's why so much of this stuff is missing. It's really hard to detect.
According to the models, there is enough stuff in this bridge to extrapolate the existence of the rest of the missing normal matter. Of course, we only have a data set of one, which is a bit rocky, but I suspect more of these will be found now that we know they're out there.
And may I add, phew! It's always nice when half the stuff you can't find finally turns up.