The cosmic hunt for dark matter has been turning up some interesting clues of late. And during the month of June, two key hints came along that might provide answers; specifically simulations that look at the “local Universe” from the Big Bang to the present day and recent studies involving galaxy clusters. In both cases, the observations made point towards the existence of Dark Matter – the mysterious substance believed to make up 85 per cent of the mass of the Universe.
In the former case, the clues are the result of new supercomputer simulations that show the evolution of our “local Universe” from the Big Bang to the present day. Physicists at Durham University, who are leading the research, say their simulations could improve understanding of dark matter due to the fact that they believe that clumps of the mysterious substance – or halos – emerged from the early Universe, trapping intergalactic gas and thereby becoming the birthplaces of galaxies.
Cosmological theory predicts that our own cosmic neighborhood should be teeming with millions of small halos, but only a few dozen small galaxies have been observed around the Milky Way. Professor Carlos Frenk, Director of Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology, said:
I’ve been losing sleep over this for the last 30 years… Dark matter is the key to everything we know about galaxies, but we still don’t know its exact nature. Understanding how galaxies formed holds the key to the dark matter mystery… We know there can’t be a galaxy in every halo. The question is: ‘Why not?’.
The Durham researchers believe their simulations answer this question, showing how and why millions of halos around our galaxy and neighboring Andromeda failed to produce galaxies. They say the gas that would have made the galaxy was sterilized by the heat from the first stars that formed in the Universe and was prevented from cooling and turning into stars. However, a few halos managed to bypass this cosmic furnace by growing early and fast enough to hold on to their gas and eventually form galaxies.
The findings were presented at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Portsmouth on Thursday, June 26. The work was funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the European Research Council. Professor Frenk, who received the Royal Astronomical Society’s top award, the Gold Medal for Astronomy, added:
We have learned that most dark matter halos are quite different from the ‘chosen few’ that are lit up by starlight. Thanks to our simulations we know that if our theories of dark matter are correct then the Universe around us should be full of halos that failed to make a galaxy. Perhaps astronomers will one day figure out a way to find them.
Lead researcher Dr Till Sawala, in the Institute for Computational Cosmology, at Durham University, said the research was the first to simulate the evolution of our “Local Group” of galaxies, including the Milky Way, Andromeda, their satellites and several isolated small galaxies, in its entirety. Dr Sawala said:
What we’ve seen in our simulations is a cosmic own goal. We already knew that the first generation of stars emitted intense radiation, heating intergalactic gas to temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun. After that, the gas is so hot that further star formation gets a lot more difficult, leaving halos with little chance to form galaxies. We were able to show that the cosmic heating was not simply a lottery with a few lucky winners. Instead, it was a rigorous selection process and only halos that grew fast enough were fit for galaxy formation.
The close-up look at the Local Group is part of the larger EAGLE project currently being undertaken by cosmologists at Durham University and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. EAGLE is one of the first attempts to simulate from the beginning the formation of galaxies in a representative volume of the Universe. By peering into the virtual Universe, the researchers find galaxies that look remarkably like our own, surrounded by countless dark matter halos, only a small fraction of which contain galaxies.
The research is part of a program being conducted by the Virgo Consortium for supercomputer simulations, an international collaboration led by Durham University with partners in the UK, Germany, Holland, China and Canada. The new results on the Local Group involve, in addition to Durham University researchers, collaborators in the Universities of Victoria (Canada), Leiden (Holland), Antwerp (Belgium) and the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (Germany).
In the latter case, astronomers using ESA and NASA high-energy observatories have discovered another possible hint by studying galaxy clusters, the largest cosmic assemblies of matter bound together by gravity. Galaxy clusters not only contain hundreds of galaxies, but also a huge amount of hot gas filling the space between them. The gas is mainly hydrogen and, at over 10 million degrees celsius, is hot enough to emit X-rays. Traces of other elements contribute additional X-ray ‘lines’ at specific wavelengths.
Examining observations by ESA’s XMM-Newton and NASA’s Chandra spaceborne telescopes of these characteristic lines in 73 galaxy clusters, astronomers stumbled on an intriguing faint line at a wavelength where none had been seen before. The astronomers suggest that the emission may be created by the decay of an exotic type of subatomic particle known as a ‘sterile neutrino’, which is predicted but not yet detected.
Ordinary neutrinos are very low-mass particles that interact only rarely with matter via the so-called weak nuclear force as well as via gravity. Sterile neutrinos are thought to interact with ordinary matter through gravity alone, making them a possible candidate as dark matter. As Dr Esra Bulbul – from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, and lead author of the paper discussing the results – put it:
If this strange signal had been caused by a known element present in the gas, it should have left other signals in the X-ray light at other well-known wavelengths, but none of these were recorded. So we had to look for an explanation beyond the realm of known, ordinary matter… If the interpretation of our new observations is correct, at least part of the dark matter in galaxy clusters could consist of sterile neutrinos.
The surveyed galaxy clusters lie at a wide range of distances, from more than a hundred million light-years to a few billion light-years away. The mysterious, faint signal was found by combining multiple observations of the clusters, as well as in an individual image of the Perseus cluster, a massive structure in our cosmic neighborhood.
The implications of this discovery may be far-reaching, but the researchers are being cautious. Further observations with XMM-Newton, Chandra and other high-energy telescopes of more clusters are needed before the connection to dark matter can be confirmed. Norbert Schartel, ESA’s XMM-Newton Project Scientist, commented:
The discovery of these curious X-rays was possible thanks to the large XMM-Newton archive, and to the observatory’s ability to collect lots of X-rays at different wavelengths, leading to this previously undiscovered line. It would be extremely exciting to confirm that XMM-Newton helped us find the first direct sign of dark matter. We aren’t quite there yet, but we’re certainly going to learn a lot about the content of our bizarre Universe while getting there.
Much like the Higgs Boson, the existence of Dark Matter was first theorized as a way of explaining how the universe appears to have mass that we cannot see. But by looking at indirect evidence, such as the gravitational influence it has on the movements and appearance of other objects in the Universe, scientists hope to one day confirm its existence. Beyond that, there is the mystery of “Dark Energy”, the hypothetical form of energy that permeates all of space and is believed to be behind accelerations in the expansion of the universe.
As with the discovery of the Higgs Boson and the Standard Model of particle physics, detecting these two invisible forces will at last confirm that the Big Bang and Cosmological theory are scientific fact – and not just working theories. When that happens, the dream of humanity finally being able to understand the universe (at both the atomic and macro level) may finally become a reality!