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What is the Universe Made Of?

The key questions that need to be answered by astrophysicists are: What is really out there? And of what is it all made? Without this understanding it is impossible to come to any firm conclusions about how the universe evolved.

Protons, Neutrons and Electrons: The Stuff of Life

You, this computer, the air we breathe, and the distant stars are all made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. Protons and neutrons are bound together into nuclei and atoms are nuclei surrounded by a full complement of electrons. Hydrogen is composed of one proton and one electron. Helium is composed of two protons, two neutrons and two electrons. Carbon is composed of six protons, six neutrons and six electrons. Heavier elements, such as iron, lead and uranium, contain even larger numbers of protons, neutrons and electrons. Astronomers like to call all material made up of protons, neutrons and electrons "baryonic matter".

Until about thirty years ago, astronomers thought that the universe was composed almost entirely of this "baryonic matter", ordinary atoms. However, in the past few decades, there has been ever more evidence accumulating that suggests there is something in the universe that we can not see, perhaps some new form of matter.

WMAP and Dark Matter / Dark energy

Pie Chart of the content of the UniverseBy making accurate measurements of the cosmic microwave background fluctuations, WMAP is able to measure the basic parameters of the Big Bang model including the density and composition of the universe. WMAP measures the relative density of baryonic and non-baryonic matter to an accuracy of better than a few percent of the overall density. It is also able to determine some of the properties of the non-baryonic matter: the interactions of the non-baryonic matter with itself, its mass and its interactions with ordinary matter all affect the details of the cosmic microwave background fluctuation spectrum.

WMAP determined that the universe is flat, from which it follows that the mean energy density in the universe is equal to the critical density (within a 0.5% margin of error). This is equivalent to a mass density of 9.9 x 10-30 g/cm3, which is equivalent to only 5.9 protons per cubic meter. Of this total density, we now (as of January 2013) know the breakdown to be:

  • 4.6% Atoms. More than 95% of the energy density in the universe is in a form that has never been directly detected in the laboratory! The actual density of atoms is equivalent to roughly 1 proton per 4 cubic meters.
  • 24% Cold Dark Matter. Dark matter is likely to be composed of one or more species of sub-atomic particles that interact very weakly with ordinary matter. Particle physicists have many plausible candidates for the dark matter, and new particle accelerator experiments are likely to bring new insight in the coming years.
  • 71.4% Dark Energy. The first observational hints of dark energy in the universe date back to the 1980's when astronomers were trying to understand how clusters of galaxies were formed. Their attempts to explain the observed distribution of galaxies were improved if dark energy were present, but the evidence was highly uncertain. In the 1990's, observations of supernova were used to trace the expansion history of the universe (over relatively recent times) and the big surprise was that the expansion appeared to be speeding up, rather than slowing down! There was some concern that the supernova data were being misinterpreted, but the result has held up to this day. In 2003, the first WMAP results came out indicating that the universe was flat (see above) and that the dark matter made up only 24% of the density required to produce a flat universe. If 71.4% of the energy density in the universe is in the form of dark energy, which has a gravitationally repulsive effect, it is just the right amount to explain both the flatness of the universe and the observed accelerated expansion. Thus dark energy explains many cosmological observations at once.
  • Fast moving neutrinos do not play a major role in the evolution of structure in the universe. They would have prevented the early clumping of gas in the universe, delaying the emergence of the first stars, in conflict with the WMAP data. However, with 5 years of data, WMAP is able to see evidence that a sea of cosmic neutrinos do exist in numbers that are expected from other lines of reasoning. This is the first time that such evidence has come from the cosmic microwave background.

Another Probe of Dark Matter

By measuring the motions of stars and gas, astronomers can "weigh" galaxies. In our own solar system, we can use the velocity of the Earth around the Sun to measure the Sun's mass. The Earth moves around the Sun at 30 kilometers per second (roughly sixty thousand miles per hour). If the Sun were four times more massive, then the Earth would need to move around the Sun at 60 kilometers per second in order for it to stay on its orbit. The Sun moves around the Milky Way at 225 kilometers per second. We can use this velocity (and the velocity of other stars) to measure the mass of our Galaxy. Similarly, radio and optical observations of gas and stars in distant galaxies enable astronomers to determine the distribution of mass in these systems.

The mass that astronomers infer for galaxies, including our own, is roughly ten times larger than the mass that can be associated with stars, gas and dust in a Galaxy. This mass discrepancy has been confirmed by observations of gravitational lensing, the bending of light predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity.

HST Image of a gravitational lens
HST Image of a Gravitational Lens
Text Link for an HST press release describing this image.

By measuring how the background galaxies are distorted by the foreground cluster, astronomers can measure the mass in the cluster. The mass in the cluster is more than five times larger than the inferred mass in visible stars, gas and dust.

Candidates for the Dark Matter

What is the nature of the "dark matter", this mysterious material that exerts a gravitational pull, but does not emit nor absorb light? Astronomers do not know.

There are a number of plausible speculations on the nature of the dark matter:

  • Brown Dwarfs: if a star's mass is less than one twentieth of our Sun, its core is not hot enough to burn either hydrogen or deuterium, so it shines only by virtue of its gravitational contraction. These dim objects, intermediate between stars and planets, are not luminous enough to be directly detectable by our telescopes. Brown Dwarfs and similar objects have been nicknamed MACHOs (MAssive Compact Halo Objects) by astronomers. These MACHOs are potentially detectable by gravitational lensing experiments. If the dark matter is made mostly of MACHOs, then it is likely that baryonic matter does make up most of the mass of the universe.
  • Supermassive Black Holes: these are thought to power distant "K" type quasars. Some astronomers speculate that dark matter may be made up of copious numbers of black holes. These black holes are also potentially detectable through their lensing effects.
  • New forms of matter: particle physicists, scientists who work to understand the fundamental forces of nature and the composition of matter, have speculated that there are new forces and new types of particles. One of the primary motivations for building "supercolliders" is to try to produce this matter in the laboratory. Since the universe was very dense and hot in the early moments following the Big Bang, the universe itself was a wonderful particle accelerator. Cosmologists speculate that the dark matter may be made of particles produced shortly after the Big Bang. These particles would be very different from ordinary "baryonic matter". Cosmologists call these hypothetical particles WIMPs (for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) or "non-baryonic matter".

Dark Energy: a Cosmological Constant?

Dark Energy makes up a large majority ot the total content of the universe, but this was not always known. Einstein first proposed the cosmological constant (not to be confused with the Hubble Constant) usually symbolized by the greek letter "lambda" (Λ), as a mathematical fix to the theory of general relativity. In its simplest form, general relativity predicted that the universe must either expand or contract. Einstein thought the universe was static, so he added this new term to stop the expansion. Friedmann, a Russian mathematician, realized that this was an unstable fix, like balancing a pencil on its point, and proposed an expanding universe model, now called the Big Bang theory. When Hubble's study of nearby galaxies showed that the universe was in fact expanding, Einstein regretted modifying his elegant theory and viewed the cosmological constant term as his "greatest mistake".

Many cosmologists advocate reviving the cosmological constant term on theoretical grounds, as a way to explain the rate of expansion of the universe. Modern field theory associates this term with the energy density of the vacuum. For this energy density to be comparable to other forms of matter in the universe, it would require new physics theories. So the addition of a cosmological constant term has profound implications for particle physics and our understanding of the fundamental forces of nature.

The main attraction of the cosmological constant term is that it significantly improves the agreement between theory and observation. The most spectacular example of this is the recent effort to measure how much the expansion of the universe has changed in the last few billion years. Generically, the gravitational pull exerted by the matter in the universe slows the expansion imparted by the Big Bang. Very recently it has become practical for astronomers to observe very bright rare stars called supernova in an effort to measure how much the universal expansion has slowed over the last few billion years. Surprisingly, the results of these observations indicate that the universal expansion is speeding up, or accelerating! While these results should be considered preliminary, they raise the possibility that the universe contains a bizarre form of matter or energy that is, in effect, gravitationally repulsive. The cosmological constant is an example of this type of energy. Much work remains to elucidate this mystery!

There are a number of other observations that are suggestive of the need for a cosmological constant. For example, if the cosmological constant today comprises most of the energy density of the universe, then the extrapolated age of the universe is much larger than it would be without such a term, which helps avoid the dilemma that the extrapolated age of the universe is younger than some of the oldest stars we observe! A cosmological constant term added to the standard model Big Bang theory leads to a model that appears to be consistent with the observed large-scale distribution of galaxies and clusters, with WMAP's measurements of cosmic microwave background fluctuations, and with the observed properties of X-ray clusters.

Other Interesting Sites and Further Reading:

On dark matter:

  • Visit the dark matter page at the Berkeley Cosmology Group.
  • A list of popular books on dark matter and the Big Bang.
  • A recent introductory html article by David Spergel on searching for dark matter. This article is geared towards physics undergraduates and will appear in "Some Outstanding Problems in Astrophysics", edited by J.N. Bahcall and J.P. Ostriker.


On gravitational lensing:

Cosmological Constant:

  • Donald Goldsmith, "Einstein's Greatest Blunder? The Cosmological Constant and Other Fudge Factors in the Physics of the Universe", (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.) A well written, popular account of the cosmological constant and the current state of cosmology.
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  • Page Updated: Friday, 01-24-2014