Student finds Universe’s missing mass


May 24, 2011
Blog Entry, Space

A Monash student has made a breakthrough in the field of astrophysics, discovering what has until now been described as the Universe’s ‘missing mass’. Amelia Fraser-McKelvie, working within a team at the Monash School of Physics, conducted a targeted X-ray search for the matter and within just three months found it – or at least some of it.

What makes the discovery all the more noteworthy is the fact that Ms Fraser-McKelvie is not a career researcher, or even studying at a postgraduate level. She is a 22-year-old undergraduate Aerospace Engineering/Science student who pinpointed the missing mass during a summer scholarship, working with two astrophysicists at the School of Physics, Dr Kevin Pimbblet and Dr Jasmina Lazendic-Galloway.

The School of Physics put out a call for students interested in a six-week paid astrophysics research internship during a recent vacation period, and chose Ms Fraser-McKelvie from a large number of applicants. Dr Pimbblet, lecturer in the School of Physics put the magnitude of the discovery in context by explaining that scientists had been hunting for the Universe’s missing mass for decades.

“It was thought from a theoretical viewpoint that there should be about double the amount of matter in the local Universe compared to what was observed.  It was predicted that the majority of this missing mass should be located in large-scale cosmic structures called filaments – a bit like thick shoelaces,” said Dr Pimbblet.

Astrophysicists also predicted that the mass would be low in density, but high in temperature – approximately one million degrees Celsius. This meant that, in theory, the matter should have been observable at X-ray wavelengths. Amelia Fraser-McKelvie’s discovery has proved that prediction correct.

Ms Fraser-McKelvie said the ‘Eureka moment’ came when Dr Lazendic-Galloway closely examined the data they had collected.

“Using her expert knowledge in the X-ray astronomy field, Jasmina reanalysed our results to find that we had in fact detected the filaments in our data, where previously we believed we had not.”

X-ray observations provide important information about physical properties of large-scale structures, which can help astrophysicists better understand their true nature. Until now, they had been making deductions based only on numerical models, so the discovery is a huge step forward in determining what amount of mass is actually contained within filaments.

Still a year away from undertaking her Honours year (which she will complete under the supervision of Dr Pimbblet), Ms Fraser-McKelvie is being hailed as one of Australia’s most exciting young students.  Her work has been published in one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific journals, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“Being a published author is very exciting for me, and something I could never have achieved without the help of both Kevin and Jasmina. Their passion and commitment for this project ensured the great result and I am very thankful to them for all the help they have given me and time they have invested,” said Ms Fraser-McKelvie.

Dr Pimbblet said that he had under his tuition a very talented student who excelled in performing the breakthrough research.

“She has managed to get a refereed publication accepted by one of the highest ranking astronomy journals in the world as a result of her endeavours.  I cannot underscore enough what a terrific achievement this is. We will use this research as a science driver for future telescopes that are being planned, such as the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, which is being built in outback Western Australian.”

The paper can be found on the Cornell University website.


Student finds Universe’s missing mass

13 Responses to Student finds Universe’s missing mass

  1. James Allison May 25, 2011 at 3:07 am #

    @Erin

    This isn’t Dark Matter – the above article’s headline is misleading.

    The result is a detection of the warm normal matter (i.e. electrons, protons, neutrons) which form “filaments” between clusters of galaxies. This warm matter emits faint X-ray radiation which has to be combined together to make a detection, in this case they combined 41 images from the known positions of existing “filaments”.

    They obtain a measurement of the amount of warm normal matter in filaments – 6 times greater than a previous study done in 1995.

    Getting an article accepted for publication in MNRAS is an excellent achievement for an undergraduate summer student.

  2. James Allison May 25, 2011 at 3:06 am #

    @Erin

    This isn’t Dark Matter – the above article’s headline is very misleading.

    The result is a detection of the warm normal matter (i.e. electrons, protons, neutrons) which form “filaments” between clusters of galaxies. This warm matter emits faint X-ray radiation which has to be combined together to make a detection, in this case they combined 41 images from the known positions of existing “filaments”.

    They obtain a measurement of the amount of warm normal matter in filaments – 6 times greater than a previous study done in 1995.

    Getting an article accepted for publication in MNRAS is an excellent achievement for an undergraduate summer student.

  3. James Allison May 25, 2011 at 3:05 am #

    @Erin

    This isn’t Dark Matter – the above article’s headline is very misleading.

    The result is a detection of the warm normal matter (i.e. electrons, protons, neutrons) which form “filaments” between clusters of galaxies. This warm matter emits faint X-ray radiation which has to be combined together to make a detection, in this case they combined 41 images from the known positions of existing “filaments”.

    They obtain a measurement of the amount of warm normal matter in filaments – 6 times greater than a previous study done in 1995.

    Getting an article excepted for publication in MNRAS is an excellent achievement for an undergraduate summer student.

  4. Natanael L May 25, 2011 at 2:06 am #

    So you have no idea how common it is that revolutionizing ideas usually comes from people who haven’t been stuck in the same mindset for 50 years? ;)

  5. Natanael L May 25, 2011 at 1:15 am #

    From what I can tell, she was the one who picked to spot and also decided to reanalyze it. Otherwise I’m not sure it makes sense.

  6. Greg Fisk May 24, 2011 at 10:48 pm #

    Indeed

  7. 97point6 May 24, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

    You didn’t happen to see my keys in there by chance? Been missing quite awhile, actually.

  8. Ken H May 24, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

    Am I the only one confused by this blog entry? The headline says the student made the discovery, but the content says the student could not interpret anything from the data, whereas it was actually the supervising astrophysicist whose analysis of the data confirmed the hypothesis. What part of this earns the student special credit for the discovery, apart from the fact she was an intern on the research team? Or is there some information missing from this entry that would clarify her role?

  9. AvgDude May 24, 2011 at 7:51 pm #

    So… What’s really being said here, is that the greatest theorists in this field were stymied for years by the fact that they didn’t know how to operate their equipment properly?

  10. Erin Palette May 24, 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    Is this Dark Matter, or something else?

  11. John H May 24, 2011 at 4:55 pm #

    A little confused, did scienceblog write this or was it from the Monash website? http://www.monash.edu.au/news/show/monash-student-finds-universes-missing-mass

    If so, shouldn’t this be acknowledged?

  12. Tom May 24, 2011 at 3:54 pm #

    “What’d you do on your summer vacation?”

    “Surfed & Hung out. You?”

    “I found some of the MISSING MASS OF THE UNIVERSE!”

  13. Jamo May 24, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    Exactly what the world needs more of: young Australian female Astrophysicist paradigm-shifters! HUZZAH!

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