Scientists are trying to understand the invisible and hypothetical ‘dark matter’ â€“ the stuff that we know exists by inference of its gravitational influence on the matter we can see. The most common held notion of dark matter is that it exists in ‘halos’ or clumps that surround galaxies. But a new study predicts that galaxies like our own Milky Way, also contain a disk of dark matter. Using the results of a supercomputer simulation, scientists from the University of Zurich and the University of Central Lancashire say that if dark matter in fact resides as a disk within a galaxy, it could allow physicists to directly detect and identify the nature of dark matter for the first time.
Physicists believe dark matter makes up 22% of the mass of the Universe (compared with the 4% of normal matter and 74% comprising the mysterious â€˜dark energyâ€™). But, despite its pervasive influence, no-one is sure what dark matter consists of.
This â€˜standardâ€™ theory of dark matter is based on supercomputer simulations that model the gravitational influence of the dark matter alone. The new work includes the gravitational influence of the stars and gas that also make up our Galaxy.
Stars and gas are thought to have settled into disks very early on in the life of the Universe and this affected how smaller dark matter halos formed. The teamâ€™s results suggest that most lumps of dark matter in our locality merged to form a halo around the Milky Way. But the largest lumps were preferentially dragged towards the galactic disk and were then torn apart, creating a disk of dark matter within our Galaxy.
â€œThe dark disk only has about half of the density of the dark matter halo, which is why no one has spotted it before,â€ said lead author Justin Read. â€œHowever, despite its low density, if the disk exists it has dramatic implications for the detection of dark matter here on Earth.â€
The Earth and Sun move at some 220 kilometres per second along a nearly circular orbit about the center of our Galaxy. Since the dark matter halo does not rotate, from an Earth-based perspective it feels as if we have a â€˜windâ€™ of dark matter flowing towards us at great speed. By contrast, the â€˜windâ€™ from the dark disk is much slower than from the halo because the disk co-rotates with the Earth.
â€œIt’s like sitting in your car on the highway moving at a hundred kilometres an hourâ€, said team member Dr. Victor Debattista. â€œIt feels like all of the other cars are stationary because they are moving at the same speed.â€
This abundance of low-speed dark matter particles, the science team says, could be a real boon for researchers because they are more likely to excite a response in dark matter detectors than fast-moving particles. â€œCurrent detectors cannot distinguish these slow moving particles from other background â€˜noiseâ€™,â€ said Prof. Laura Baudis, a collaborator at the University of Zurich and one of the lead investigators for the XENON direct detection experiment, which is located at the Gran Sasso Underground Laboratory in Italy. â€œBut the XENON100 detector that we are turning on right now is much more sensitive. For many popular dark matter particle candidates, it will be able to see something if itâ€™s there.â€
If so, its possible that the dark disk could be directly detected in the very near future.