Void (astronomy)

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Matter distribution in a cubic section of the universe. The blue fiber structures represent the matter (primarily dark matter) and the empty regions in between represent the cosmic voids. Structure of the Universe.jpg
Matter distribution in a cubic section of the universe. The blue fiber structures represent the matter (primarily dark matter) and the empty regions in between represent the cosmic voids.

Cosmic voids are vast spaces between filaments (the largest-scale structures in the universe), which contain very few or no galaxies. Voids typically have a diameter of 10 to 100 megaparsecs (30 to 300 million light years); particularly large voids, defined by the absence of rich superclusters, are sometimes called supervoids. They have less than one tenth of the average density of matter abundance that is considered typical for the observable universe. They were first discovered in 1978 in a pioneering study by Stephen Gregory and Laird A. Thompson at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. [1]


Voids are believed to have been formed by baryon acoustic oscillations in the Big Bang, collapses of mass followed by implosions of the compressed baryonic matter. Starting from initially small anisotropies from quantum fluctuations in the early universe, the anisotropies grew larger in scale over time. Regions of higher density collapsed more rapidly under gravity, eventually resulting in the large-scale, foam-like structure or "cosmic web" of voids and galaxy filaments seen today. Voids located in high-density environments are smaller than voids situated in low-density spaces of the universe. [2]

Voids appear to correlate with the observed temperature of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) because of the Sachs–Wolfe effect. Colder regions correlate with voids and hotter regions correlate with filaments because of gravitational redshifting. As the Sachs–Wolfe effect is only significant if the universe is dominated by radiation or dark energy, the existence of voids is significant in providing physical evidence for dark energy. [3] [4]

Large-scale structure

A map of galaxy voids Galaxy superclusters and galaxy voids.png
A map of galaxy voids

The structure of the Universe can be broken down into components that can help describe the characteristics of individual regions of the cosmos. These are the main structural components of the cosmic web:

Voids have a mean density less than a tenth of the average density of the universe. This serves as a working definition even though there is no single agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a void. The matter density value used for describing the cosmic mean density is usually based on a ratio of the number of galaxies per unit volume rather than the total mass of the matter contained in a unit volume. [8]


Study of cosmic voids within the discipline of astrophysics began in the mid-1970s when redshift surveys became led two separate teams of astrophysicists in 1978 to identify superclusters and voids in the distribution of galaxies and Abell clusters. [9] [10] The new redshift surveys revolutionized the field of astronomy by adding depth to the two-dimensional maps of cosmological structure, which were often densely packed and overlapping, [6] allowing for the first three-dimensional mapping of the universe. Through redshift surveys, their depth was calculated from the individual redshifts of the galaxies due to the expansion of the universe according to Hubble's law. [11]


A summarized timeline of important events in the field of cosmic voids from its beginning to recent times is as follows:

Methods for finding

There exist a number of ways for finding voids with the results of large-scale surveys of the universe. Of the many different algorithms, virtually all fall into one of three general categories. [26] The first class consists of void finders that try to find empty regions of space based on local galaxy density. [27] The second class are those which try to find voids via the geometrical structures in the dark matter distribution as suggested by the galaxies. [28] The third class is made up of those finders which identify structures dynamically by using gravitationally unstable points in the distribution of dark matter. [29] The three most popular methods through the study of cosmic voids are listed below:

VoidFinder algorithm

This first-class method uses each galaxy in a catalog as its target and then uses the Nearest Neighbor Approximation to calculate the cosmic density in the region contained in a spherical radius determined by the distance to the third-closest galaxy. [30] El Ad & Piran introduced this method in 1997 to allow a quick and effective method for standardizing the cataloging of voids. Once the spherical cells are mined from all of the structure data, each cell is expanded until the underdensity returns to average expected wall density values. [31] One of the helpful features of void regions is that their boundaries are very distinct and defined, with a cosmic mean density that starts at 10% in the body and quickly rises to 20% at the edge and then to 100% in the walls directly outside the edges. The remaining walls and overlapping void regions are then gridded into, respectively, distinct and intertwining zones of filaments, clusters, and near-empty voids. Any overlap of more than 10% with already known voids are considered to be subregions within those known voids. All voids admitted to the catalog had a minimum radius of 10 Mpc in order to ensure all identified voids were not accidentally cataloged due to sampling errors. [30]

Zone bordering on voidness (ZOBOV) algorithm

This particular second-class algorithm uses a Voronoi tessellation technique and mock border particles in order to categorize regions based on a high-density contrasting border with a very low amount of bias. [32] Neyrinck introduced this algorithm in 2008 with the purpose of introducing a method that did not contain free parameters or presumed shape tessellations. Therefore, this technique can create more accurately shaped and sized void regions. Although this algorithm has some advantages in shape and size, it has been criticized often for sometimes providing loosely defined results. Since it has no free parameters, it mostly finds small and trivial voids, although the algorithm places a statistical significance on each void it finds. A physical significance parameter can be applied in order to reduce the number of trivial voids by including a minimum density to average density ratio of at least 1:5. Subvoids are also identified using this process which raises more philosophical questions on what qualifies as a void. [33] Void finders such as VIDE [34] are based on ZOBOV.

Dynamical void analysis (DIVA) algorithm

This third-class method is drastically different from the previous two algorithms listed. The most striking aspect is that it requires a different definition of what it means to be a void. Instead of the general notion that a void is a region of space with a low cosmic mean density; a hole in the distribution of galaxies, it defines voids to be regions in which matter is escaping; which corresponds to the dark energy equation of state, w. Void centers are then considered to be the maximal source of the displacement field denoted as Sψ. The purpose for this change in definitions was presented by Lavaux and Wandelt in 2009 as a way to yield cosmic voids such that exact analytical calculations can be made on their dynamical and geometrical properties. This allows DIVA to heavily explore the ellipticity of voids and how they evolve in the large-scale structure, subsequently leading to the classification of three distinct types of voids. These three morphological classes are True voids, Pancake voids, and Filament voids. Another notable quality is that even though DIVA also contains selection function bias just as first-class methods do, DIVA is devised such that this bias can be precisely calibrated, leading to much more reliable results. Multiple shortfalls of this Lagrangian-Eulerian hybrid approach exist. One example is that the resulting voids from this method are intrinsically different than those found by other methods, which makes an all-data points inclusive comparison between results of differing algorithms very difficult. [26]


Voids have contributed significantly to the modern understanding of the cosmos, with applications ranging from shedding light on the current understanding of dark energy, to refining and constraining cosmological evolution models. [4] Some popular applications are mentioned in detail below.

Dark energy

The simultaneous existence of the largest-known voids and galaxy clusters requires about 70% dark energy in the universe today, consistent with the latest data from the cosmic microwave background. [4] Voids act as bubbles in the universe that are sensitive to background cosmological changes. This means that the evolution of a void's shape is in part the result of the expansion of the universe. Since this acceleration is believed to be caused by dark energy, studying the changes of a void's shape over a period of time can be used to constrain the standard ΛCDM model, [35] [36] or further refine the Quintessence + Cold Dark Matter (QCDM) model and provide a more accurate dark energy equation of state. [37] Additionally the abundance of voids is a promising way to constrain the dark energy equation of state. [38] [39]


Neutrinos, due to their very small mass and extremely weak interaction with other matter, will free-stream in and out of voids which are smaller than the mean-free path of neutrinos. This has an effect on the size and depth distribution of voids, and is expected to make it possible with future astronomical surveys (e.g. the Euclid satellite) to measure the sum of the masses of all neutrino species by comparing the statistical properties of void samples to theoretical predictions. [39]

Galactic formation and evolution models

A 43x43x43-megaparsec cube shows the evolution of the large-scale structure over a logarithmic period starting from a redshift of 30 and ending at redshift 0. The model makes it clear to see how the matter-dense regions contract under the collective gravitational force while simultaneously aiding in the expansion of cosmic voids as the matter flees to the walls and filaments. Large-scale structure formation.gif
A 43×43×43-megaparsec cube shows the evolution of the large-scale structure over a logarithmic period starting from a redshift of 30 and ending at redshift 0. The model makes it clear to see how the matter-dense regions contract under the collective gravitational force while simultaneously aiding in the expansion of cosmic voids as the matter flees to the walls and filaments.

Cosmic voids contain a mix of galaxies and matter that is slightly different than other regions in the universe. This unique mix supports the biased galaxy formation picture predicted in Gaussian adiabatic cold dark matter models. This phenomenon provides an opportunity to modify the morphology-density correlation that holds discrepancies with these voids. Such observations like the morphology-density correlation can help uncover new facets about how galaxies form and evolve on the large scale. [40] On a more local scale, galaxies that reside in voids have differing morphological and spectral properties than those that are located in the walls. One feature that has been found is that voids have been shown to contain a significantly higher fraction of starburst galaxies of young, hot stars when compared to samples of galaxies in walls. [41]

Voids offer opportunities to study the strength of intergalactic magnetic fields. For example, a 2015 study concludes, based on the deflection of blazar gamma-ray emissions that travel through voids, that intergalactic space contains a magnetic field of strength at least 10-17 G. The specific large-scale magnetic structure of the universe suggests primordial "magnetogenesis", which in turn could have played a role in the formation of magnetic fields within galaxies, and could also change estimates of the timeline of recombination in the early universe. [42] [43]

Anomalies in anisotropies

Cold spots in the cosmic microwave background, such as the WMAP cold spot found by Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, could possibly be explained by an extremely large cosmic void that has a radius of ~120 Mpc, as long as the late integrated Sachs–Wolfe effect was accounted for in the possible solution. Anomalies in CMB screenings are now being potentially explained through the existence of large voids located down the line-of-sight in which the cold spots lie. [44]

CMB screening of the universe. WMAP white.png
CMB screening of the universe.


Although dark energy is currently the most popular explanation for the acceleration in the expansion of the universe, another theory elaborates on the possibility of our galaxy being part of a very large, not-so-underdense, cosmic void. According to this theory, such an environment could naively lead to the demand for dark energy to solve the problem with the observed acceleration. As more data has been released on this topic the chances of it being a realistic solution in place of the current ΛCDM interpretation has been largely diminished but not all together abandoned. [45]

Gravitational theories

The abundance of voids, particularly when combined with the abundance of clusters of galaxies, is a promising method for precision tests of deviations from general relativity on large scales and in low-density regions. [46] [47]

The insides of voids often seem to adhere to cosmological parameters which differ from those of the known universe[ citation needed ] . It is because of this unique feature that cosmic voids make for great laboratories to study the effects that gravitational clustering and growth rates have on local galaxies and structure when the cosmological parameters have different values from the outside universe. Due to the observation that larger voids predominantly remain in a linear regime, with most structures within exhibiting spherical symmetry in the underdense environment; that is, the underdensity leads to near-negligible particle-particle gravitational interactions that would otherwise occur in a region of normal galactic density. Testing models for voids can be performed with very high accuracy. The cosmological parameters that differ in these voids are Ωm, ΩΛ, and H0. [48]

See also

Related Research Articles

Dark matter Hypothetical form of matter comprising most of the matter in the universe

Dark matter is a hypothetical form of matter thought to account for approximately 85% of the matter in the universe and about 27% of its total mass–energy density or about 2.241×10−27 kg/m3. Its presence is implied in a variety of astrophysical observations, including gravitational effects that cannot be explained by accepted theories of gravity unless more matter is present than can be seen. For this reason, most experts think that dark matter is abundant in the universe and that it has had a strong influence on its structure and evolution. Dark matter is called dark because it does not appear to interact with the electromagnetic field, which means it does not absorb, reflect or emit electromagnetic radiation, and is therefore difficult to detect.

Galaxy groups and clusters Largest known gravitationally bound object in universe; aggregation of galaxies

Galaxy groups and clusters are the largest known gravitationally bound objects to have arisen thus far in the process of cosmic structure formation. They form the densest part of the large-scale structure of the Universe. In models for the gravitational formation of structure with cold dark matter, the smallest structures collapse first and eventually build the largest structures, clusters of galaxies. Clusters are then formed relatively recently between 10 billion years ago and now. Groups and clusters may contain ten to thousands of individual galaxies. The clusters themselves are often associated with larger, non-gravitationally bound, groups called superclusters.

Supercluster Large group of smaller galaxy clusters or galaxy groups

A supercluster is a large group of smaller galaxy clusters or galaxy groups; it is among the largest known structures of the universe. The Milky Way is part of the Local Group galaxy group, which in turn is part of the Virgo Supercluster, which is part of the Laniakea Supercluster. The large size and low density of superclusters means that they, unlike clusters, expand with the Hubble expansion. The number of superclusters in the observable universe is estimated to be 10 million.

Virgo Supercluster Galactic supercluster containing the Virgo Cluster

The Virgo Supercluster or the Local Supercluster is a mass concentration of galaxies containing the Virgo Cluster and Local Group, which in turn contains the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. At least 100 galaxy groups and clusters are located within its diameter of 33 megaparsecs. The Virgo SC is one of about 10 million superclusters in the observable universe and is in the Pisces–Cetus Supercluster Complex, a galaxy filament.

Observable universe All matter that can be observed from the Earth at the present time

The observable universe is a ball-shaped region of the universe comprising all matter that can be observed from Earth or its space-based telescopes and exploratory probes at the present time, because the electromagnetic radiation from these objects has had time to reach the Solar System and Earth since the beginning of the cosmological expansion. There may be 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe, although that number has recently been estimated at only several hundred billion based on new data from New Horizons. Assuming the universe is isotropic, the distance to the edge of the observable universe is roughly the same in every direction. That is, the observable universe has a spherical volume centered on the observer. Every location in the universe has its own observable universe, which may or may not overlap with the one centered on Earth.

Sunyaev–Zeldovich effect

The Sunyaev–Zeldovich effect is the spectral distortion of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) through inverse Compton scattering by high-energy electrons in galaxy clusters, in which the low-energy CMB photons receive an average energy boost during collision with the high-energy cluster electrons. Observed distortions of the cosmic microwave background spectrum are used to detect the disturbance of density in the universe. Using the Sunyaev–Zeldovich effect, dense clusters of galaxies have been observed.

Sachs–Wolfe effect Phenomenon of redshift in cosmology

The Sachs–Wolfe effect, named after Rainer K. Sachs and Arthur M. Wolfe, is a property of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), in which photons from the CMB are gravitationally redshifted, causing the CMB spectrum to appear uneven. This effect is the predominant source of fluctuations in the CMB for angular scales larger than about ten degrees.

Reionization Process that caused matter to reionize early in the history of the Universe

In the fields of Big Bang theory and cosmology, reionization is the process that caused matter in the universe to reionize after the lapse of the "dark ages".

Redshift quantization, also referred to as redshift periodicity, redshift discretization, preferred redshifts and redshift-magnitude bands, is the hypothesis that the redshifts of cosmologically distant objects tend to cluster around multiples of some particular value. In standard inflationary cosmological models, the redshift of cosmological bodies is ascribed to the expansion of the universe, with greater redshift indicating greater cosmic distance from the Earth. This is referred to as cosmological redshift. Ruling out errors in measurement or analysis, quantized redshift of cosmological objects would either indicate that they are physically arranged in a quantized pattern around the Earth, or that there is an unknown mechanism for redshift unrelated to cosmic expansion, referred to as "intrinsic redshift" or "non-cosmological redshift".

Pavo–Indus Supercluster Neighboring supercluster in the constellations Pavo,Indus and Telescopium

The Pavo-Indus Supercluster is a neighboring supercluster located about 60–70 Mpc (196–228 Mly) away in the constellations of Pavo, Indus, and Telescopium. The supercluster contains three main clusters, Abell 3656, Abell 3698, and Abell 3742.

Galaxy filament Largest structures in the universe, made of galaxies

In cosmology, galaxy filaments are the largest known structures in the universe, consisting of walls of gravitationally bound galaxy superclusters. These massive, thread-like formations can reach 80 megaparsecs h−1 and form the boundaries between large voids.

Weak gravitational lensing

While the presence of any mass bends the path of light passing near it, this effect rarely produces the giant arcs and multiple images associated with strong gravitational lensing. Most lines of sight in the universe are thoroughly in the weak lensing regime, in which the deflection is impossible to detect in a single background source. However, even in these cases, the presence of the foreground mass can be detected, by way of a systematic alignment of background sources around the lensing mass. Weak gravitational lensing is thus an intrinsically statistical measurement, but it provides a way to measure the masses of astronomical objects without requiring assumptions about their composition or dynamical state.

Baryon acoustic oscillations

In cosmology, baryon acoustic oscillations (BAO) are fluctuations in the density of the visible baryonic matter of the universe, caused by acoustic density waves in the primordial plasma of the early universe. In the same way that supernovae provide a "standard candle" for astronomical observations, BAO matter clustering provides a "standard ruler" for length scale in cosmology. The length of this standard ruler is given by the maximum distance the acoustic waves could travel in the primordial plasma before the plasma cooled to the point where it became neutral atoms, which stopped the expansion of the plasma density waves, "freezing" them into place. The length of this standard ruler can be measured by looking at the large scale structure of matter using astronomical surveys. BAO measurements help cosmologists understand more about the nature of dark energy by constraining cosmological parameters.


The Huge Large Quasar Group, is a possible structure or pseudo-structure of 73 quasars, referred to as a large quasar group, that measures about 4 billion light-years across. At its discovery, it was identified as the largest and the most massive known structure in the observable universe, though it has been superseded by the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall at 10 billion light-years. There are also issues about its structure.

In cosmology, intensity mapping is an observational technique for surveying the large-scale structure of the universe by using the integrated radio emission from unresolved gas clouds.

Idit Zehavi is an Israeli astrophysicist and researcher who discovered an anomaly in the mapping of the cosmos, which offered insight into how the universe is expanding. She is part of the team completing the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and is one of the world's most highly cited scientists according to the list published annually by Thomson Reuters.


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