Missing baryon problem

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The missing baryon problem was a problem related to the fact that the observed amount of baryonic matter did not match theoretical predictions. The density of baryons can be constrained according to big bang nucleosynthesis and the cosmic microwave background. The best current data, observed by the Planck spacecraft in 2015, yielded a density about 4.85% of the critical density.[1] However, directly adding up all the known baryonic matter produces a baryonic density slightly less than half of this.[2] The missing baryon problem is distinct from the dark matter problem, which is mainly non-baryonic in nature. There is also much more dark matter in the universe than there are missing baryons.[3]

The missing baryons are believed to be located in the warm–hot intergalactic medium (WHIM) (hot intergalactic gas), with recent observations providing strong support.[4][5]

Theoretical predictions[edit]

The density of baryonic matter can be obtained indirectly from two independent methods.

  • The theory of Big Bang nucleosynthesis predicts the observed abundance of the chemical elements. If there are more baryons, then there should also be more helium, lithium and heavier elements synthesized during the Big Bang.[6][7] Agreement with observed abundances requires that baryonic matter makes up between 4–5% of the universe's critical density.
  • Detailed analysis of the small irregularities (anisotropies) in the cosmic microwave background (CMB), especially the second peak. The details are technical, but are based on the fact that baryonic matter interacts with photons and therefore leaves a visible imprint on the CMB.[8]

The CMB constraint ()[1] is much more precise than the BBN constraint (),[9][10] but the two are in agreement.


The density of baryonic matter can be obtained directly by summing up all the known baryonic matter. This is highly nontrivial, since although luminous matter such as stars and galaxies are easily summed, baryonic matter can also exist in highly non-luminous form, such as black holes, planets, and highly diffuse interstellar gas. Nonetheless it can still be done, using techniques such as:

  • Sufficient diffuse, baryonic gas or dust would be visible when backlit by stars. The resulting spectra can be used to infer the mass between the star and the observer (us).[11]
  • Gravitational microlensing. If a planet or other dark object moves between the observer and a faraway source, the image of the source is distorted. The mass of the dark object can be inferred based on the amount of distortion.

Prior to 2017, the result came to about 70% of the theoretical predictions.[12]


The missing baryon problem was proclaimed solved in 2017, when two groups of scientists working independently found the missing baryons in intergalactic matter. The missing baryons had been postulated to exist as hot strands between galaxy pairs. Because the strands are so diffuse, and because they are not hot enough to emit X-rays, they are difficult to detect. The groups used the Sunyaev-Zeldovich effect to measure the density of the strands. If there are baryons present, light from the cosmic microwave background should scatter off them, losing some energy. These show up as very dim patches in the CMB. The patches are too dim to see directly, but when overlaid with the visible galaxy distribution, become detectable. The density of the strands comes up to about 30% of the baryonic density, the exact amount needed to solve the problem.[4][13][14][15]


  1. ^ a b Ade, P.A.R.; et al. (2016). "Planck 2015 results. XIII. Cosmological parameters". Astron. Astrophys. 594: A13. arXiv:1502.01589. Bibcode:2016A&A...594A..13P. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201525830.
  2. ^ Henry C. Ferguson. ""The Case of the "Missing Baryons""".
  3. ^ See Lambda-CDM model. Baryons make up only ~5% of the universe, while dark matter makes up 26.8%.
  4. ^ a b "Half the universe's missing matter has just been finally found". New Scientist. Retrieved 2017-10-12.
  5. ^ Nicastro, F.; Kaastra, J.; Krongold, Y.; Borgani, S.; Branchini, E.; Cen, R.; Dadina, M.; Danforth, C. W.; Elvis, M.; Fiore, F.; Gupta, A.; Mathur, S.; Mayya, D.; Paerels, F.; Piro, L.; Rosa-Gonzalez, D.; Schaye, J.; Shull, J. M.; Torres-Zafra, J.; Wijers, N.; Zappacosta, L. (2018). "Observations of the missing baryons in the warm–hot intergalactic medium". Nature. 558 (7710): 406–409. arXiv:1806.08395. Bibcode:2018Natur.558..406N. doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0204-1. PMID 29925969.
  6. ^ Achim Weiss, "Big Bang Nucleosynthesis: Cooking up the first light elements" in: Einstein Online Vol. 2 (2006), 1017
  7. ^ Raine, D.; Thomas, T. (2001). An Introduction to the Science of Cosmology. IOP Publishing. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-7503-0405-4. Archived from the original on 30 May 2013.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  8. ^ Canetti, L.; Drewes, M.; Shaposhnikov, M. (2012). "Matter and Antimatter in the Universe". New J. Phys. 14 (9): 095012. arXiv:1204.4186. Bibcode:2012NJPh...14i5012C. doi:10.1088/1367-2630/14/9/095012.
  9. ^ Mike Anderson. "Missing Baryons" (PDF).
  10. ^ Fields, Brian D; Molaro, Paolo; Sarkar, Subir (2014). "Big-Bang Nucleosynthesis". Chinese Physics C. 38 (9): 339–344. arXiv:1412.1408. Bibcode:2014ChPhC..38i0001O. doi:10.1088/1674-1137/38/9/090001.
  11. ^ See Lyman-alpha forest.
  12. ^ Shull, J. Michael; Smith, Britton D; Danforth, Charles W (2012). "The Baryon Census in a Multiphase Intergalactic Medium: 30% of the Baryons May Still be Missing". The Astrophysical Journal. 759 (1): 23. arXiv:1112.2706. Bibcode:2012ApJ...759...23S. doi:10.1088/0004-637X/759/1/23.
  13. ^ Tanimura, Hideki; Hinshaw, Gary; McCarthy, Ian G; Ludovic Van Waerbeke; Ma, Yin-Zhe; Mead, Alexander; Hojjati, Alireza; Tröster, Tilman (2017). "A Search for Warm/Hot Gas Filaments Between Pairs of SDSS Luminous Red Galaxies". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 483: 223–234. arXiv:1709.05024. Bibcode:2018MNRAS.tmp.2970T. doi:10.1093/mnras/sty3118.
  14. ^ Anna de Graaff; Cai, Yan-Chuan; Heymans, Catherine; Peacock, John A (2017). "Missing baryons in the cosmic web revealed by the Sunyaev-Zel'dovich effect". arXiv:1709.10378 [astro-ph.CO].
  15. ^ Nicastro, F.; Kaastra, J.; Krongold, Y.; Borgani, S.; Branchini, E.; Cen, R.; Dadina, M.; Danforth, C. W.; Elvis, M. (June 2018). "Observations of the missing baryons in the warm–hot intergalactic medium". Nature. 558 (7710): 406–409. arXiv:1806.08395. Bibcode:2018Natur.558..406N. doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0204-1. ISSN 0028-0836. PMID 29925969.