In the late 1990s, cosmologists made a prediction about how much ordinary matter there should be in the universe. About 5%, they estimated, should be regular stuff with the rest a mixture of dark matter and dark energy. But when cosmologists counted up everything they could see or measure at the time, they came up short. By a lot.

The sum of all the ordinary matter that cosmologists measured only added up to about half of the 5% what was supposed to be in the universe.

This is known as the “missing baryon problem” and for over 20 years, cosmologists like us looked hard for this matter without success.

It took the discovery of a new celestial phenomenon and entirely new telescope technology, but earlier this year, our team finally found the missing matter.

Origin of the problem

Baryon is a classification for types of particles – sort of an umbrella term – that encompasses protons and neutrons, the building blocks of all the ordinary matter in the universe. Everything on the periodic table and pretty much anything that you think of as “stuff” is made of baryons.

Since the late 1970s, cosmologists have suspected that dark matter – an as of yet unknown type of matter that must exist to explain the gravitational patterns in space – makes up most of the matter of the universe with the rest being baryonic matter, but they didn’t know the exact ratios. In 1997, three scientists from the University of California, San Diego, used the ratio of heavy hydrogen nuclei – hydrogen with an extra neutron – to normal hydrogen to estimate that baryons should make up about 5% of the mass-energy budget of the universe.

Yet while the ink was still drying on the publication, another trio of cosmologists raised a bright red flag. They reported that a direct measure of baryons in our present universe – determined through a census of stars, galaxies, and the gas within and around them – added up to only half of the predicted 5%.

This sparked the missing baryon problem. Provided the law of nature held that matter can be neither created nor destroyed, there were two possible explanations: Either the matter didn’t exist and the math was wrong, or, the matter was out there hiding somewhere.