EDINBURGH scientists are looking for the invisible and plumbing the depths of a mine to try to solve the mysteries of space.

Though announced ahead of the official publication of their discovery, a team of scientists at Edinburgh University may have solved the conundrum that has baffled researchers for years – the so-called “missing baryon problem” which could explain the mystery of what constitutes much of the universe.

Another set of researchers from the university is preparing to go down a deep mine in order to find out how human visitors to Mars and the Moon will be able to explore under their surfaces.

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Scientists have known for many years that there is a huge imbalance between how much can be observed and how much there should be “out there” as predicted by scientific models.

It is believed that dark energy – the mystery energy that drives its expansion – amounts to around 70 per cent of the universe.

Dark matter accounts for a quarter and the remaining five per cent is made up of the substances that make up everything we can see in the universe, including planets, stars and galaxies.

Yet observations of normal matter – protons, neutrons and electrons – total just 2.5 percent of the universe and the remainder has never been found, hence the “missing baryon problem”.

Working independently from each other, two teams of researchers say they have solved the problem.

Project leader Anne de Graaff from Edinburgh was saying nothing ahead of the peer-review publication of her paper in Nature magazine, but Hideki Tanimura at the Institute of Space Astrophysics in Orsay, France, told New Scientist magazine that the two teams independently found the missing baryons in the hot filaments of gas that link galaxies together.

According to the magazine, both teams, looking at over a million pairs of galaxies between them, found evidence of gas filaments in the space between galaxies. They found the matter was far denser than average, with Tanimura’s paper saying it was up to three times denser, while in Graaf’s paper it was as much as six.

“The missing baryon problem is solved,” said Tanimura. “We expect some differences [between the density] because we are looking at filaments at different distances. If this factor is included, our findings are very consistent with the other group.”

EDINBURGH University researchers have also been selected for a Mars-related project in which scientists from around the world are gathering in a deep mine to research new technologies for future exploration of the Moon and Mars.

The Edinburgh team are taking part in the Mine Analogue Research (Minar) event at the Cleveland Potash Boulby Mine in north-east England.

The Boulby Underground Laboratory at the site, a kilometre underground, is one of just a handful of facilities worldwide suitable for deep underground science projects.

The environment has a low level of natural radiation compared with the Earth’s surface, which is beneficial for sensitive experiments.

Deep underground is an ideal place in which to better understand the exploration challenges of other planets.

At the event, run by the UK Centre for Astrobiology, the international group will work together to test a range of equipment, including new means of studying microbial life.

Edinburgh researchers will be joined by colleagues from across Europe, NASA and the SETI Institute in the United States, together with the Kalam Centre in India.

An astronaut from the European Space Agency will also take part.

By working in an active mine, researchers hope that technology developments can be shared between planetary scientists and the global mining community.

Two live online feeds featuring scientists at work will be broadcast from the mine – the first on Monday, October 16 and another on Wednesday, October 18.

The Boulby laboratory is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Professor Charles Cockell of Edinburgh’s School of Physics and Astronomy, and head of the UK Centre for Astrobiology, said: “The next two weeks provide a wonderful opportunity for scientists from many different parts of the world to come together to work in the mine and laboratories underground.

“We also want to use it as an opportunity to give as many people as possible an understanding of the challenges of planetary exploration and the technologies being developed.”