From EarthSky: “What is dark matter?”

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From EarthSky

February 23, 2020
Andy Briggs

Dark Matter doesn’t emit light. It can’t be directly observed with any of the existing tools of astronomers. Yet astrophysicists believe it and Dark Energy make up most of the mass of the cosmos. What dark matter is, and what it isn’t. here.

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Since the 1930s, astrophysicists have been trying to explain why the visible material in galaxies can’t account for how galaxies are shaped, or how they behave. They believe a form of dark or invisible matter pervades our universe, but they still don’t know what this dark matter might be. Image via ScienceAlert.

Dark matter is a mysterious substance thought to compose perhaps about 27% of the makeup of the universe. What is it? It’s a bit easier to say what it isn’t.

It isn’t ordinary atoms – the building blocks of our own bodies and all we see around us – because atoms make up only somewhere around 5% of the universe, according to a cosmological model called the Lambda Cold Dark Matter Model (aka the Lambda-CDM model, or sometimes just the Standard Model).

Lamda Cold Dark Matter Accerated Expansion of The universe http scinotions.com the-cosmic-inflation-suggests-the-existence-of-parallel-universes
Alex Mittelmann, Coldcreation

Dark Matter isn’t the same thing as Dark Energy, which makes up some 68% of the universe, according to the Standard Model.

Dark Energy Survey


Dark Energy Camera [DECam], built at FNAL


NOAO/CTIO Victor M Blanco 4m Telescope which houses the DECam at Cerro Tololo, Chile, housing DECam at an altitude of 7200 feet

Timeline of the Inflationary Universe WMAP

The Dark Energy Survey (DES) is an international, collaborative effort to map hundreds of millions of galaxies, detect thousands of supernovae, and find patterns of cosmic structure that will reveal the nature of the mysterious dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of our Universe. DES began searching the Southern skies on August 31, 2013.

According to Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, gravity should lead to a slowing of the cosmic expansion. Yet, in 1998, two teams of astronomers studying distant supernovae made the remarkable discovery that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. To explain cosmic acceleration, cosmologists are faced with two possibilities: either 70% of the universe exists in an exotic form, now called dark energy, that exhibits a gravitational force opposite to the attractive gravity of ordinary matter, or General Relativity must be replaced by a new theory of gravity on cosmic scales.

DES is designed to probe the origin of the accelerating universe and help uncover the nature of dark energy by measuring the 14-billion-year history of cosmic expansion with high precision. More than 400 scientists from over 25 institutions in the United States, Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia are working on the project. The collaboration built and is using an extremely sensitive 570-Megapixel digital camera, DECam, mounted on the Blanco 4-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, high in the Chilean Andes, to carry out the project.

Over six years (2013-2019), the DES collaboration used 758 nights of observation to carry out a deep, wide-area survey to record information from 300 million galaxies that are billions of light-years from Earth. The survey imaged 5000 square degrees of the southern sky in five optical filters to obtain detailed information about each galaxy. A fraction of the survey time is used to observe smaller patches of sky roughly once a week to discover and study thousands of supernovae and other astrophysical transients.

Dark matter is invisible; it doesn’t emit, reflect or absorb light or any type of electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays or radio waves. Thus, dark matter is undetectable directly, as all of our observations of the universe, apart from the detection of gravitational waves, involve capturing electromagnetic radiation in our telescopes.

Gravitational waves Werner Benger-ZIB-AEI-CCT-LSU

Yet dark matter does interact with ordinary matter. It exhibits measurable gravitational effects on large structures in the universe such as galaxies and galaxy clusters. Because of this, astronomers are able to make maps of the distribution of dark matter in the universe, even though they cannot see it directly.

They do this by measuring the effect dark matter has on ordinary matter, through gravity.

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This all-sky image – released in 2013 – shows the distribution of dark matter across the entire history of the universe as seen projected on the sky. It’s based on data collected with the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite.

ESA/Planck 2009 to 2013

Dark blue areas represent regions that are denser than their surroundings. Bright areas represent less dense regions. The gray portions of the image correspond to patches of the sky where foreground emission, mainly from the Milky Way but also from nearby galaxies, prevents cosmologists from seeing clearly. Image via ESA.

There is currently a huge international effort to identify the nature of dark matter. Bringing an armory of advanced technology to bear on the problem, astronomers have designed ever-more complex and sensitive detectors to tease out the identity of this mysterious substance.

Dark Matter Research

Universe map Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey

Scientists studying the cosmic microwave background hope to learn about more than just how the universe grew—it could also offer insight into dark matter, dark energy and the mass of the neutrino.

Dark matter cosmic web and the large-scale structure it forms The Millenium Simulation, V. Springel et al

Dark Matter Particle Explorer China

DEAP Dark Matter detector, The DEAP-3600, suspended in the SNOLAB deep in Sudbury’s Creighton Mine

LBNL LZ Dark Matter project at SURF, Lead, SD, USA


Inside the ADMX experiment hall at the University of Washington Credit Mark Stone U. of Washington. Axion Dark Matter Experiment

Dark matter might consist of an as yet unidentified subatomic particle of a type completely different from what scientists call baryonic matter – that’s just ordinary matter, the stuff we see all around us – which is made of ordinary atoms built of protons and neutrons.

The list of candidate subatomic particles breaks down into a few groups: there are the WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles), a class of particles thought to have been produced in the early universe. Astronomers believe that WIMPs might self-annihilate when colliding with each other, so they have searched the skies for telltale traces of events such as the release of neutrinos or gamma rays. So far, they’ve found nothing. In addition, although a theory called supersymmetry predicts the existence of particles with the same properties as WIMPs, repeated searches to find the particles directly have also found nothing, and experiments at the Large Hadron Collider to detect the expected presence of supersymmetry have completely failed to find it.

Standard Model of Supersymmetry via DESY

CERN/LHC Map


CERN LHC Maximilien Brice and Julien Marius Ordan


SixTRack CERN LHC particles

Several different types of detector have been used to detect WIMPs. The general idea is that very occasionally, a WIMP might collide with an ordinary atom and release a faint flash of light, which can be detected. The most sensitive detector built to date is XENON1T, which consists of a 10-meter cylinder containing 3.2 tons of liquid xenon, surrounded by photomultipliers to detect and amplify the incredibly faint flashes from these rare interactions. As of July 2019, when the detector was decommissioned to pave the way for a more sensitive instrument, the XENONnT, no collisions between WIMPs and the xenon atoms had been seen.

XENON1T at Gran Sasso LABORATORI NAZIONALI del GRAN SASSO, located in the Abruzzo region of central Italy


Gran Sasso LABORATORI NAZIONALI del GRAN SASSO, located in the Abruzzo region of central Italy

At the moment, a hypothetical particle called the Axion is receiving much attention.

CERN CAST Axion Solar Telescope

As well as being a strong candidate for dark matter, the existence of axions is also thought to provide the answers to a few other persistent questions in physics such as the Strong CP Problem.

Fritz Zwicky discovered Dark Matter in the 1930s when observing the movement of the Coma Cluster., Vera Rubin a Woman in STEM denied the Nobel, did most of the work on Dark Matter.

Fritz Zwicky from http:// palomarskies.blogspot.com

Coma cluster via NASA/ESA Hubble

In modern times, it was astronomer Fritz Zwicky, in the 1930s, who made the first observations of what we now call dark matter. His 1933 observations of the Coma Cluster of galaxies seemed to indicated it has a mass 500 times more than that previously calculated by Edwin Hubble. Furthermore, this extra mass seemed to be completely invisible. Although Zwicky’s observations were initially met with much skepticism, they were later confirmed by other groups of astronomers.

Thirty years later, astronomer Vera Rubin provided a huge piece of evidence for the existence of dark matter. She discovered that the centers of galaxies rotate at the same speed as their extremities, whereas, of course, they should rotate faster. Think of a vinyl LP on a record deck: its center rotates faster than its edge. That’s what logic dictates we should see in galaxies too. But we do not. The only way to explain this is if the whole galaxy is only the center of some much larger structure, as if it is only the label on the LP so to speak, causing the galaxy to have a consistent rotation speed from center to edge.

Vera Rubin, following Zwicky, postulated that the missing structure in galaxies is dark matter. Her ideas were met with much resistance from the astronomical community, but her observations have been confirmed and are seen today as pivotal proof of the existence of dark matter.

Astronomer Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory in 1965, worked on Dark Matter (The Carnegie Institution for Science)


Vera Rubin measuring spectra, worked on Dark Matter (Emilio Segre Visual Archives AIP SPL)


Vera Rubin, with Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM) image tube spectrograph attached to the Kitt Peak 84-inch telescope, 1970. https://home.dtm.ciw.edu

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory currently under construction on the El Peñón peak at Cerro Pachón Chile, a 2,682-meter-high mountain in Coquimbo Region, in northern Chile, alongside the existing Gemini South and Southern Astrophysical Research Telescopes.

LSST Data Journey, Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Ana Kova

Some astronomers have tried to negate the need the existence of dark matter altogether by postulating something called Modified Newtonian dynamics (MOND).

Mordehai Milgrom, MOND theorist, is an Israeli physicist and professor in the department of Condensed Matter Physics at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel http://cosmos.nautil.us

MOND Modified Newtonian Dynamics a Humble Introduction Marcus Nielbock

The idea behind this is that gravity behaves differently over long distances to what it does locally, and this difference of behavior explains phenomena such as galaxy rotation curves which we attribute to dark matter. Although MOND has its supporters, while it can account for the rotation curve of an individual galaxy, current versions of MOND simply cannot account for the behavior and movement of matter in large structures such as galaxy clusters and, in its current form, is thought unable to completely account for the existence of dark matter. That is to say, gravity does behave in the same way at all scales of distance. Most versions of MOND, on the other hand, have two versions of gravity, the weaker one occurring in regions of low mass concentration such as in the outskirts of galaxies. However, it is not inconceivable that some new version of MOND in the future might yet account for dark matter.

Although some astronomers believe we will establish the nature of dark matter in the near future, the search so far has proved fruitless, and we know that the universe often springs surprises on us so that nothing can be taken for granted.

The approach astronomers are taking is to eliminate those particles which cannot be dark matter, in the hope we will be left with the one which is.

It remains to be seen if this approach is the correct one.

See the full article here .


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Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. “Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers,” she says.