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The visible universe—including Earth, the sun, other stars, and galaxies—is made of protons, neutrons, and electrons bundled together into atoms. Perhaps one of the most surprising discoveries of the 20th century was that this ordinary, or baryonic, matter makes up less than 5 percent of the mass of the universe.

The rest of the universe appears to be made of a mysterious, invisible substance called dark matter (25 percent) and a force that repels gravity known as dark energy (70 percent).

Scientists have not yet observed dark matter directly. It doesn’t interact with baryonic matter and it’s completely invisible to light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation, making dark matter impossible to detect with current instruments. […]

Dark energy is even more mysterious, and its discovery in the 1990s was a complete shock to scientists. Previously, physicists had assumed that the attractive force of gravity would slow down the expansion of the universe over time. But when two independent teams tried to measure the rate of deceleration, they found that the expansion was actually speeding up. One scientist likened the finding to throwing a set of keys up in the air expecting them to fall back down-only to see them fly straight up toward the ceiling.

Scientists now think that the accelerated expansion of the universe is driven by a kind of repulsive force generated by quantum fluctuations in otherwise “empty” space. What’s more, the force seems to be growing stronger as the universe expands. For lack of a better name, scientists call this mysterious force dark energy.

{ National Geographic | Continue reading }