Space may be the perfect impenetrably dark chasm to hide the bodies. Already haunted by bizarre ghosts and undead stars, it harbors unseen forces that tear at the universe like invisible claws and has covered up astral cannibalism and lunar murder. Investigating scientists have not always been able to make sense of why things appear out of nowhere, disappear into nowhere, happen against astronomical odds, or even exist.
Whether you marathoned a certain nightmare-inducing mystery show in the '90s or think nothing could possibly be more terrifying than blood splattered all over the nightly news, these unexplained phenomena buried in the cosmos will give you more chills than the ice moons of Pluto. Cue Unsolved Mysteries theme music.
Nebulae often look spectral against the eternal night of space, washed in icy blues, funereal purples and wraithlike whites. The Eagle Nebula has more of an ochre hue — but there is something haunting it. Look closely. See the face? See his face? That was exactly what millions of CNN viewers tried to convince themselves they were not hallucinating about when they called the station to report the apparition on their TV screens. An even closer look resulted in a human form that could pass for an astral rendering of Odin or Zeus. While a few more out-there theorists might like to muse about this being some primordial alien artifact, psychology has more of a possible explanation to this ghost story than astronomy. Pareidolia is the trippy phenomenon responsible for (otherwise sober) people seeing or hearing significant things that really aren’t there. Not that Ancient Aliens would ever have you believing that.
The Galactic Phantom
This Milky Way mystery is literally massive. Imagine a ghost so huge that it takes up an entire city, and while you can’t see it, you just know it’s there because it keeps throwing soda cans and spare tires. The Oort Cloud isn’t just an invisible hypothetical object, but an entire invisible hypothetical expanse of space that astronomers only believe exists because of comets that follow a bizarre orbit in sync with something that seems to be a massive celestial cloud. Everything in our solar system also has a faint gravitational connection to the Oort Cloud and is possibly surrounded by it. So, we’ve basically in an eternal relationship with a behemoth we can’t see. Whether this Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man of space (imagine him hard enough and he exists) swallowed its comets first or whether they somehow meandered into its gaping maw billions of years ago is just as questionable as its existence.
Jewelry-store heists are nothing new, but there is suspicion surrounding where Saturn got its rings. Were they innocently acquired when space junk that remained after the Big Bang drifted towards the sixth planet, or were they created by more sinister means? The rings that have made Saturn the most fashionable planet in the Milky Way are made of ice — critical evidence that tells scientists of a crime the planet has gotten away with for aeons. The molecular composition of icy moons is an exact DNA match for the material in most of the ill-acquired rings. The theory under investigation is that Saturn’s rings were seized as trophies from the violent serial murder of what were once icy moons, each of which spun in a death spiral towards Saturn before the planet pulverized their ice with gravity and turned them into the deceptively beautiful rings it wears today. Astronomers have yet to determine whether this is the final verdict.
Dark matter sounds so sci-fi because of its oxymoronic tendency to exist unseen. Even the most brilliant NASA brains still aren’t positive as to what exactly this ghostly galactic mass is. Scientists have only been able to shed light on it as even being matter because they theorize it exerts a mysterious gravitational force that appears to attract visible matter out of nowhere. Think of it as a poltergeist levitating things towards itself of smashing them. You see cups and saucers floating, you scream, you have no idea what unearthly force is doing this, but there is positively something keeping your antique china suspended in midair. New Hubble Telescope evidence has even led to the hypothesis that dark matter is an enormous spiderweb of sticky gravitational strands which galaxies are eternally caught in. As to what exactly comprises it or what its properties are, might as well hand that case file over to the Ghostbusters.
There is another unseen monster out there, ripping apart and stretching the universe at unthinkable speeds. Astronomers also have no idea what it is, despite the fact that it makes up over half the cosmos. Dark energy (because there really is no other name for an insatiable force that won’t allow itself to be seen) is the scientific explanation for the universe’s infinite growth. Myriad theories surround it. Quintessence is the vague and somewhat archaic idea of dark energy being the enigmatic “fifth element” in the universe. Quantum theory suggests that what we think of as empty space is infested with vicious particles that keep self-destructing and regenerating. Einstein proposed it is a property of space that oozes across the darkness to create even more space. If this thing stumped Einstein, that makes it even spookier. Maybe we’d be better able to identify this ever-expanding energy glob if it was fluorescent and radioactive and green.
With dark matter and dark energy easily swallowing up 95% of the entire cosmos, that leaves all the matter we have ever (meaning since the start of conceivable history) been able to see, touch, feel, smell, taste, or probe with satellites and telescopes at a microscopic 5%. Yet half of even that has gone missing. Is it in a black hole? A parallel universe? The Upside-Down? Baryonic matter, aka “normal” matter made up of the same protons and neutrons in matter detectable by the naked eyeball, has been taken hostage by something. Astrophysicists have theorized from their detective work that the missing matter might be stuck between galaxies in a sludge of hot plasma otherwise known as the warm-hot intergalactic medium. Some have even suggested they could be in the shroud of gas surrounding the Milky Way. Barring abduction by the Demogorgon, how and why these baryons ended up there is a whole other case that still needs to be investigated.
Vortex of Doom
Black holes have had their innards endlessly debated and dissected in theory — but we still can’t autopsy them. Telescopes are still unable to see the guts of these star corpses because no radiation or material can reach us from the great dark beyond. It remains as much of a mystery as why nothing that enters the event horizon ever sees the other side, which has made them the subjects of some nightmare-inducing science fiction (Interstellar, anyone?). The most unnerving hypothesis by far delves into the almost fantastical realm of quantum teleportation. When an object is lured by the immense gravitational force of a black hole and falls in, that object is supposedly disassembled at the molecular level, then reassembled and relocated to we can only begin to imagine where. Most scientists are leery of any concept that turns black holes into wormholes, but can we really know for sure unless we enter the abyss?
While black holes have the spotlight (which can’t shine past the event horizon), there has been speculation on their hypothetical evil twins. White holes are supposed to vomit matter, the source of which is unknown. While no one has ever actually seen one, it was Einstein’s mathematical proof that black holes existed which made it possible to find a flip side. If these matter-spewing mouths actually do exist in space, the discovery of one would open a Pandora’s box of possibly dangerous possibilities. Are they the exit portals for reconstituted matter being ejected in its new quantum state? If they are, then how many light-years away is the black hole which sucked in said matter? Do they even exist in the same place in the space-time continuum? Remember this if you ever find yourself pulling an all-nighter. Besides black coffee, pondering theories like this works wonders at keeping you awake at 3 AM.
Hands of Darkness
There is an invisible hand grabbing at the Milky Way’s proverbial shirt collar in the dark. Go ahead and imagine it as grotesque as possible with warts, claws and all, because what it could be doing is infinitely scarier. Something out there is possibly exerting an unnaturally strong gravitational pull that is slowly dragging our galaxy towards inevitable doom. Dark flow was the identifier given to this mysterious force by astronomers who just had to give it a “dark” name in homage to every other unexplained thing in the universe that continues to give them migraines (think dark matter and dark energy). Science believes this disembodied hand belongs to something else that may or may not exist—cosmic megastructures. These theoretical (read: invisible until further notice) bodies are supposedly lurking beyond the visible horizon and using the force of gravity exerted by their mammoth size to drag us somewhere unknown. Thankfully, their existence also remains unknown.
The history of something that never happened almost evades argument — except when it doesn’t. Antimatter is the upside-down mirror of matter with the same mass but an opposite charge. If a molecule of matter faces off with its reverse doppelganger, they will annihilate each other. We might as well be living in a post-apocalyptic world, because astronomers believe the Big Bang should have produced just enough homicidal matter and anti-matter for a molecular apocalypse. Meaning, the universe would be a vast stygian graveyard completely devoid of particles. At least that was what was supposed to happen. What science has yet to explain is why there was an imbalance in favor of matter when cosmological theories lead to the planets, stars, moons, comets, asteroids and us never having existed. Physicists aren’t even sure whether the question to ask is why there was a banzai attack of matter or where the antimatter vanished to.