380,000 years after the Big Bang, the Universe cooled from being a hot soup of plasma, to a temperature where protons and electrons could combine to form atoms. This calm period of neutral hydrogen in universal history didn’t last for long however. The neutral hydrogen atoms were ripped apart once more, by a mechanism that would go on to reionize the entire Universe, a process that eventually ended a billion years after the Big Bang.
It is thought the first stars that formed prior to the reionisation epoch probably pumped out some fierce ultraviolet radiation, ionizing the neutral hydrogen, but a new (controversial) theory has been put forward. Did dark matter have a role to play in the reionisation the Universe?
As 85% of the Universe is composed of a type of matter we have yet to fully account for, it seems only natural that scientists would be looking into the possibility that dark matter had a role to play soon after the Big Bang. Although scientists are fairly confident that the reionisation period was driven by the emissions from the very first stars, there are some observational factors that could suggest dark matter annihilation might have had a role to play in the evolution of the Universe.
This is according to Dan Hooper and Alexander Belikov from Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, in any case. In their theory recently published, the researchers examine the physics behind dark matter annihilation as the mechanism that drove the reionisation epoch.
In Hooper and Belikov’s work, they focus on dark matter that is theorized to have clumped together under gravitational attraction as the Universe cooled during the neutral hydrogen era (known as the “Dark Ages” – the Universe would have been opaque due to lack of stars and lack of electromagnetic radiation). When the dark matter during this time clumped, it is predicted to annihilate. During dark matter annihilation, high energy gamma-rays are predicted to be generated. Where gamma-radiation goes, ionization of matter is sure to follow.
“A single gamma ray might reionise 1000 hydrogen atoms,” says Hooper. “The mechanism could easily have reionised the universe.”
By their reasoning, rather than emissions from stars that may have been forming at the start of the reionisation epoch, a far more potent ionization mechanism could have flooded the Universe. However, some scientists are skeptical of this idea.
“We have no evidence yet that any dark matter has ever annihilated,” says Charles Bennett, principal investigator on NASA’s WMAP satellite, which has been studying the reionisation epoch. “I am not saying it is wrong, but it sounds a bit too contrived for me to eagerly accept it.” Bennett sees the dark matter argument as one mystery (reionisation) being explained by another mystery (does dark matter even annihilate?).
For now, the idea that dark matter may have been the underlying mechanism ionizing our Universe remains highly theoretical. But Hooper is eager to study the data from ESA’s upcoming Planck mission as this observatory will be able to study how reionisation proceeded with time. “The time signature of dark matter reionisation will be different from that brought about by stars,” says Hooper.
Source: New Scientist