For the first time, astronomers were able to see a string of hot gas known as a filament that is thought to be part of the mysterious underlying structure that dictates the layout of all the stars and galaxies in our universe.
Scientists believe that matter in the universe is arranged into a gigantic web-like structure. This is called the cosmic web.
There are signatures of this structure in the remaining radiation from the Big Bang and in the layout of the universe itself. Without some mysterious force pulling visible matter into this web, galaxies would be randomly scattered across the universe. But they aren’t.
We can see that galaxies are found in groups and those groups come together in larger clusters.
Computer models tell us that those galaxy clusters are linked by long filaments of hot gas and dark matter — a mystery substance that we can’t see because it doesn’t radiate or scatter light but that makes up most of the web.
It’s believed that gas and dark matter flow along the filaments to form clumps of galaxies where the strands intersect. So filaments are important because they represent what the universe looks like on a large scale. The problem is that, even though we should technically be able to see hot gas filaments, they are really hard to detect.
To find this strand of gas, astronomers where able to take advantage of an extremely bright mass of energy and light known as a quasar.
The light from a quasar located 10 billion light-years-away acted like a “flashlight” to make the surrounding gas glow, researchers report Jan. 19 in the journal Nature. This boosted the Lyman alpha radiation that hydrogen gas emits to detectable levels over a huge swath of the region.