The three-dimensional mass map was developed by measuring the shapes of about a half million faraway galaxies.
To reach Earth, the light from the galaxies must pass through dark matter. The matter bends and warps the path the light takes.
While the researchers cannot see galactic light undistorted, statistical analyses of hundreds of galaxies allow the scientists to predict how the galaxies should look in the absence of dark matter, Massey explained.
The researchers then inferred dark matter's presence and distribution by the way the galactic light bent, a technique known as gravitational lensing.
The map, which stretches back halfway to the beginning of the universe, shows dark matter strung out in a network of filaments that grow over time.
The filaments intersect in massive structures at the same places where galaxy clusters are located, supporting theoretical models that normal matter—such as galaxies—accumulates along the densest concentrations of dark matter.
Since the map stretches back in time, the researchers are also able to show how dark matter has grown increasingly clumpy as it has collapsed under gravity.
Astronomers likened the challenge of mapping the universe's mass to mapping a city with only the aid of aerial photos taken at night. Looking at the new maps is equivalent to seeing a city, its suburbs, and country roads in daylight.
Darkness to Light?
As astronomers continue to study the growth of clustering in the dark matter, they may also gain insight to the nature of dark energy, another mysterious force believed to permeate the universe.
Dark energy is a repulsive force opposing gravity. It is thought to influence how dark matter clumps together.
"This growth of these [dark matter] structures is a competition between the attractive force of gravity and the repulsive force, or almost an antigravity, of the dark energy," said Jason Rhodes, a study collaborator from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Follow-up missions, Rhodes added, will use the same gravitational lensing technique as the COSMOS mission to determine the nature of dark energy.
And what about the nature of dark matter?
"We haven't got an answer of what is dark matter yet," Massey said. "We got the first step though—that is, where is the dark matter."
Free Email News Updates
Best Online Newsletter, 2006 Codie Awards
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES