For several decades now, the widely accepted theory is that almost 27% of the universe is fashioned out of an invisible, mysterious mass known as “dark matter”. Originally theorized by Fritz Zwicky in 1933, the concept was meant to account for the “missing mass” apparent in galaxies in clusters. Since that time, many observations have suggested its existence, but definitive proof has remained elusive.
Despite our best efforts, no one has ever observed dark matter directly (nor dark energy, which is theorized to make up the remaining 68% of the universe). It’s acceptance as a theory has been mainly due to the fact that it makes the most sense, beating out theories like Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND), which seek to redefine the laws of gravity as to why the universe behaves the way it does.
Luckily, MIT recently green-lighted the DarkLight project – a program aimed at creating tiny tiny amounts of dark matter using a particle accelerator. In addition to proving that dark matter exists, the project team has a more ambitious goal of figuring out dark matter behaves – i.e. how it exerts gravitational attraction on the ordinary matter that makes up the visible universe.
The leading theory for dark matter used to be known as WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles). This theory stated that dark matter only interacted with normal matter via gravity and the weak nuclear force, making them very hard to detect. However, a recent research initiative challenged this view and postulates that dark matter may actually consist of massive photons that couple to electrons and positrons.
To do this, DarkLight will use the particle accelerator at the JeffersonJefferson Lab’s Labs Free-Electron Laser Free Electron Lase in Virginia to bombard an oxygen target with a stream of electrons with one megawatt of power. This will be able to test for these massive photons and, it is hoped, create this theorized form of dark matter particles. The dark matter, if it’s created, will then immediately decay into two other particles that can be (relatively) easily detected.
At this point, MIT estimates that it will take a couple of years to build and test the DarkLight experiment, followed by another two years of smashing electrons into the target and gathering data. By then, it should be clear whether dark matter consists of A prime particles, or whether scientists and astronomers have barking up the wrong tree these many years.
But if we can pinpoint the basis of dark matter, it would be a monumental finding that would greatly our enhance our understanding of the universe, and dwarf even the discovery of the Higgs Boson. After that, the only remaining challenge will be to find a way to observe and understand the other 68% of the universe!