Narrowing Down the Mass of the Milky Way

Since the birth of modern astronomy, scientists have sought to determine the full extent of the Milky Way galaxy and learn more about its structure, formation and evolution. At present, astronomers estimate that it is 100,000 to 180,000 light-years in diameter and consists of 100 to 400 billion stars – though some estimates say there could be as many as 1 trillion.

And yet, even after decades of research and observations, there is still much about our galaxy astronomers do not know. For example, they are still trying to determine how massive the Milky Way is, and estimates vary widely. In a new study, a team of international scientists presents a new method for weighing the galaxy based the dynamics of the Milky Way’s satellites galaxies.

Continue reading “Narrowing Down the Mass of the Milky Way”

What is the Cosmic Microwave Background?

For thousands of years, human being have been contemplating the Universe and seeking to determine its true extent. And whereas ancient philosophers believed that the world consisted of a disk, a ziggurat or a cube surrounded by celestial oceans or some kind of ether, the development of modern astronomy opened their eyes to new frontiers. By the 20th century, scientists began to understand just how vast (and maybe even unending) the Universe really is.

And in the course of looking farther out into space, and deeper back in time, cosmologists have discovered some truly amazing things. For example, during the 1960s, astronomers became aware of microwave background radiation that was detectable in all directions. Known as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the existence of this radiation has helped to inform our understanding of how the Universe began. Continue reading “What is the Cosmic Microwave Background?”

If There is a Multiverse, Can There be Life There Too?

The Multiverse Theory, which states that there may be multiple or even an infinite number of Universes, is a time-honored concept in cosmology and theoretical physics. While the term goes back to the late 19th century, the scientific basis of this theory arose from quantum physics and the study of cosmological forces like black holes, singularities, and problems arising out of the Big Bang Theory.

One of the most burning questions when it comes to this theory is whether or not life could exist in multiple Universes. If indeed the laws of physics change from one Universe to the next, what could this mean for life itself? According to a new series of studies by a team of international researchers, it is possible that life could be common throughout the Multiverse (if it actually exists).

The studies, titled “The impact of dark energy on galaxy formation. What does the future of our Universe hold?” and “Galaxy formation efficiency and the multiverse explanation of the cosmological constant with EAGLE simulations“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The former study was led by Jaime Salcido, a postgraduate student at Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology.

Einstein Lecturing
Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921. Credit: National Library of Austria/F. Schmutzer/Public Domain

The latter was led by Luke Barnes, a John Templeton Research Fellow at the University of Sydney’s Sydney Institute for Astronomy. Both teams included members from the University of Western Australia’s International Center for Radio Astronomy Research, the Liverpool John Moores University’s Astrophysics Research Institute, and Leiden University’s Leiden Observatory.

Together, the research team sought to determine how the accelerated expansion of the cosmos could have effected the rate of star and galaxy formation in our Universe. This accelerate rate of expansion, which is an integral part of the Lambda-Cold Dark Matter (Lambda-CDM) model of cosmology, arose out of problems posed by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

As a consequence of Einstein’s field equations, physicist’s understood that the Universe would either be in a state of expansion or contraction since the Big Bang. In 1919, Einstein responded by proposing the “Cosmological Constant” (represented by Lambda), which was a force that “held back” the effects of gravity and thus ensured that the Universe was static and unchanging.

Shortly thereafter, Einstein retracted this proposal when Edwin Hubble revealed (based on redshift measurements of other galaxies) that the Universe was indeed in a state of expansion. Einstein apparently went as far as to declare the Cosmological Constant “the biggest blunder” of his career as a result. However, research into cosmological expansion during the late 1990s caused his theory to be reevaluated.

Artist’s impression of the Lambda Cold Dark Matter (LCDM) cosmological model of the Universe. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Alex Mittelmann, Coldcreation

In short, ongoing studies of the large-scale Universe revealed that during the past 5 billion years, cosmic expansion has accelerated. As such, astronomers began to hypothesize the existence of a mysterious, invisible force that was driving this acceleration. Popularly known as “Dark Energy”, this force is also referred to as the Cosmological Constant (CC) since it is responsible for counter-effecting the effects of gravity.

Since that time, astrophysicists and cosmologists have sought to understand how Dark Energy could have effected cosmic evolution. This is an issue since our current cosmological models predict that there must be more Dark Energy in our Universe than has been observed. However, accounting for larger amounts of Dark Energy would cause such a rapid expansion that it would dilute matter before any stars, planets or life could form.

For the first study, Salcido and the team therefore sought to determine how the presence of more Dark Energy could effect the rate of star formation in our Universe. To do this, they conducted hydrodynamical simulations using the EAGLE (Evolution and Assembly of GaLaxies and their Environments) project – one of the most realistic simulations of the observed Universe.

Using these simulations, the team considered the effects that Dark Energy (at its observed value) would have on star formation over the past 13.8 billion years, and an additional 13.8 billion years into the future. From this, the team developed a simple analytic model that indicated that Dark Energy – despite the difference in the rate of cosmic expansion – would have a negligible impact on star formation in the Universe.

Timeline of the Big Bang and the expansion of the Universe. Credit: NASA

They further showed that the impact of Lambda only becomes significant when the Universe has already produced most of its stellar mass and only causes decreases in the total density of star formation by about 15%. As Salcido explained in a Durham University press release:

“For many physicists, the unexplained but seemingly special amount of dark energy in our Universe is a frustrating puzzle. Our simulations show that even if there was much more dark energy or even very little in the Universe then it would only have a minimal effect on star and planet formation, raising the prospect that life could exist throughout the Multiverse.”

For the second study, the team used the same simulation from the EAGLE collaboration to investigate the effect of varying degrees of the CC on the formation on galaxies and stars. This consisted of simulating Universes that had Lambda values ranging from 0 to 300 times the current value observed in our Universe.

However, since the Universe’s rate of star formation peaked at around 3.5 billion years before the onset of accelerating expansion (ca. 8.5 billion years ago and 5.3 billion years after the Big Bang), increases in the CC had only a small effect on the rate of star formation.


Taken together, these simulations indicated that in a Multiverse, where the laws of physics may differ widely, the effects of more dark energy cosmic accelerated expansion would not have a significant impact on the rates of star or galaxy formation. This, in turn, indicates that other Universes in the Multiverse would be just about as habitable as our own, at least in theory. As Dr. Barnes explained:

“The Multiverse was previously thought to explain the observed value of dark energy as a lottery – we have a lucky ticket and live in the Universe that forms beautiful galaxies which permit life as we know it. Our work shows that our ticket seems a little too lucky, so to speak. It’s more special than it needs to be for life. This is a problem for the Multiverse; a puzzle remains.”

However, the team’s studies also cast doubt on the ability of Multiverse Theory to explain the observed value of Dark Energy in our Universe. According to their research, if we do live in a Multiverse, we would be observing as much as 50 times more Dark Energy than what we are. Although their results do not rule out the possibility of the Multiverse, the tiny amount of Dark Energy we’ve observed would be better explained by the presence of a as-yet undiscovered law of nature.

As Professor Richard Bower, a member of Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology and a co-author on the paper, explained:

“The formation of stars in a universe is a battle between the attraction of gravity, and the repulsion of dark energy. We have found in our simulations that Universes with much more dark energy than ours can happily form stars. So why such a paltry amount of dark energy in our Universe? I think we should be looking for a new law of physics to explain this strange property of our Universe, and the Multiverse theory does little to rescue physicists’ discomfort.”

These studies are timely since they come on the heels of Stephen Hawking’s final theory, which cast doubt on the existence of the Multiverse and proposed a finite and reasonably smooth Universe instead. Basically, all three studies indicate that the debate about whether or not we live in a Multiverse and the role of Dark Energy in cosmic evolution is far from over. But we can look forward to next-generation missions providing some helpful clues in the future.

These include the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), and ground-based observatories like the Square Kilometer Array (SKA). In addition to studying exoplanets and objects in our Solar System, these mission will be dedicated to studying how the first stars and galaxies formed and determining the role played by Dark Energy.

What’s more, all of these missions are expected to be gathering their first light sometime in the 2020s. So stay tuned, because more information – with cosmological implications – will be arriving in just a few years time!

Further Reading: Durham University

ESO Survey Shows Dark Matter to be Pretty “Smooth”

Dark Matter has been something of a mystery ever since it was first proposed. In addition to trying to find some direct evidence of its existence, scientists have also spent the past few decades developing theoretical models to explain how it works. In recent years, the popular conception has been that Dark Matter is “cold”, and distributed in clumps throughout the Universe, an observation supported by the Planck mission data.

However, a new study produced by an international team of researchers paints a different picture. Using data from the Kilo Degree Survey (KiDS), these researchers studied how the light coming from millions of distant galaxies was affected by the gravitational influence of matter on the largest of scales. What they found was that Dark Matter appears to more smoothly distributed throughout space than previously thought.

For the past five years, the KiDS survey has been using the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) – the largest telescope at the ESO’s La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile – to survey 1500 square degrees of the southern night sky. This volume of space has been monitored in four bands (UV, IR, green and red) using weak gravitational lensing and photometric redshift measurements.

All-sky survey data from ESA's Planck space telescope. Credit: ESA
All-sky survey data from ESA’s Planck space telescope. Credit: ESA

Consistent with Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, gravitational lensing involves studying how the gravitational field of a massive object will bend light. Meanwhile, redshift attempts to gauge the speed at which other galaxies are moving away from ours by measuring the extent to which their light is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum (i.e. its wavelength becomes longer the faster the source is moving away).

Gravitational lensing is especially useful when it comes to determining how the Universe came to be. Our current cosmological model, known as the Lambda Cold Dark Matter (Lambda CDM) model, states that Dark Energy is responsible for the late-time acceleration in the expansion of the Universe, and that Dark Matter is made up of massive particles that are responsible for cosmological structure formation.

Using a slight variation on this technique known as cosmic sheer, the research team studied light from distant galaxies to determine how it is warped by the presence of the largest structures in the Universe (such as superclusters and filaments). As Dr. Hendrik Hildebrandt – an astronomer from the Argelander Institute for Astronomy (AIfA) and the lead author of the paper – told Universe Today via email:

“Usually one thinks of one big mass like a galaxy cluster that causes this light deflection. But there is also matter all throughout the Universe. The light from distant galaxies gets continuously deflected by this so-called large-scale structure. This results in galaxies that are close on the sky to be “pointing” in the same direction. It’s a tiny effect but it can be measured with statistical methods from large samples of galaxies.When we have measured how strongly galaxies are “pointing” in the same direction we can infer from this the statistical properties of the large-scale structure, e.g. the mean matter density and how strongly the matter is clumped/clustered.”

Beautiful image of sprites at La Silla Observatory, captured by ESO Photo Ambassador Petr Horálek. Sprites are extremely rare atmosphere phemomena caused by irregularities in the ionosphere, high above storm clouds, at altitudes of about 80 kilometres. Typically seen as groups of red-orange flashes, they are triggered by positive cloud-to-ground lightning, which is rarer and more powerful than its negative counterpart, as the lightning discharge originates from the upper regions of the cloud, further from the ground. In a short burst, the sprite extends rapidly downwards, creating dangling red tendrils before disappearing. The sprite pictured here was most likely over 500 kilometres away (compare with a satellite image showing the storm over Argentina), spanned a height of up to 80 kilometres and lasted only a fraction of a second. Links: Midsummer Night Brings Sprites — Rare phenomenon caught on camera at La Silla Red Sprites at La Silla Observatory Sprites at Paranal Observatory
A rare phenomena known as “sprites” being seen above the La Silla Observatory in Chile,  Credit: ESO/Petr Horálek

Using this technique, the research team conducted an analysis of 450 square degrees of KiDS data, which corresponds to about 1% of the entire sky. Within this volume of space, the observed how the light coming from about 15 million galaxies interacted with all the matter that lies between them and Earth.

Combining the extremely sharp images obtained by VST with advanced computer software, the team was able to carry out one of the most precise measurements ever made of cosmic shear. Interestingly enough, the results were not consistent with those produced by the ESA’s Planck mission, which has been the most comprehensive mapper of the Universe to date.

The Planck mission has provided some wonderfully detailed and accurate information about the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). This has helped astronomers to map the early Universe, as well as develop theories of how matter was distributed during this period. As Hildebrandt explained:

“Planck measures many cosmological parameters with exquisite precision from the temperature fluctuations of the cosmic microwave background, i.e. physical processes that happened 400,000 years after the Big Bang. Two of those parameters are the mean matter density of the Universe and a measure of how strongly this matter is clumped. With cosmic shear, we also measure these two parameters but a much later cosmic times (a few billion years ago or ~10 billion years after the Big Bang), i.e. in our more recent past.”

This model assumes the cosmological principle. The LCDM universe is homogeneous and isotropic. Time dilation and redshift z are attributed to a Doppler-like shift in electromagnetic radiation as it travels across expanding space. This model assumes a nearly "flat" spatial geometry. Light traveling in this expanding model moves along null geodesics. Light waves are 'stretched' by the expansion of space as a function of time. The expansion is accelerating due to a vacuum energy or dark energy inherent in empty space. Approximately 73% of the energy density of the present universe is estimated to be dark energy. In addition, a dark matter component is currently estimated to constitute about 23% of the mass-energy density of the universe. The 5% remainder comprises all the matter and energy observed as subatomic particles, chemical elements and electromagnetic radiation; the material of which gas, dust, rocks, planets, stars, galaxies, etc., are made. This model includes a single originating big bang event, or initial singularity, which constitutes an abrupt appearance of expanding space containing radiation. This event was immediately followed by an exponential expansion of space (inflation).
The LCDM cosmological model assumes the existence of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and that both played an active role in the formation of the Universe. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Alex Mittelmann

However, Hildebrandt and his team found values for these parameters that were significantly lower than those found by Planck. Basically, their cosmic shear results suggest that there is less matter in the Universe and that it is less clustered than what the Planck results predicted. These results are likely to have an impact on cosmological studies and theoretical physics in the coming years.

As it stands, Dark Matter remains undetectable using standard methods. Like black holes, its existence can only be inferred from the observable gravitational effects it has on visible matter. In this case, its presence and fundamental nature are measured by how it has affected the evolution of the Universe over the past 13.8 billion years. But since the results appear to be conflicting, astronomers may now have to reconsider some of their previously held notions.

“There are several options: because we do not understand the dominant ingredients of the Universe (dark matter and dark energy) we can play with the properties of both,” said Hildebrandt. “For example, different forms of dark energy (more complex than the simplest possibility, which is Einstein’s “cosmological constant”) could explain our measurements. Another exciting possibility is that this is a sign that the laws of gravity on the scale of the Universe are different from General Relativity. All we can say for now is that something appears to be not quite right!”

Further Reading: ESO, arXiv

Dark Matter: Hot Or Not?

For almost a century, astronomers and cosmologists have postulated that space is filled with an invisible mass known as “dark matter”. Accounting for 27% of the mass and energy in the observable universe, the existence of this matter was intended to explain all the “missing” baryonic matter in cosmological models. Unfortunately, the concept of dark matter has solved one cosmological problem, only to create another.

If this matter does exist, what is it made of? So far, theories have ranged from saying that it is made up of cold, warm or hot matter, with the most widely-accepted theory being the Lambda Cold Dark Matter (Lambda-CDM) model. However, a new study produced by a team of European astronomer suggests that the Warm Dark Matter (WDM) model may be able to explain the latest observations made of the early Universe.

But first, some explanations are in order. The different theories on dark matter (cold, warm, hot) refer not to the temperatures of the matter itself, but the size of the particles themselves with respect to the size of a protogalaxy – an early Universe formation, from which dwarf galaxies would later form.

Diagram showing the Lambda-CBR universe, from the Big Bang to the the current era. Credit: Alex Mittelmann/Coldcreation
Diagram showing the Lambda-CBR universe, from the Big Bang to the the current era. Credit: Alex Mittelmann/Coldcreation

The size of these particles determines how fast they can travel, which determines their thermodynamic properties, and indicates how far they could have traveled – aka. their “free streaming length” (FSL) – before being slowed by cosmic expansion. Whereas hot dark matter would be made up of very light particles with high FSLs, cold dark matter is believed to be made up of massive particles that have a low FSL.

Cold dark matter has been speculated to take the form of Massive Compact Halo Objects (MACHOs) like black holes, or a class of undiscovered heavy particles – i.e. Weakly-Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs), and axions. The widely-accepted Lambda-CDM model is based in part of the theory that dark matter is “cold”.

As cosmological explanations go, it is the most simple and can account for the formation of galaxies or galaxy cluster formations. However, there remains some holes in this theory, the biggest of which is that it predicts that there should be many more small, dwarf galaxies in the early Universe than we can account for.

In short, the existence of dark matter as massive particles that have low FSL would result in small fluctuations in the density of matter in the early Universe – which would lead to large amounts of low-mass galaxies to be found as satellites of galactic halos, and with large concentrations of dark matter in their centers.

Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. The goal of the Frontier Fields is to peer back further than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and get a wealth of images of galaxies as they existed in the first several hundred million years after the Big Bang. Note that the unit of time is not linear in this illustration. Illustration Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)
Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. The goal of the Frontier Fields is to peer back further than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)

Naturally, the absence of these galaxies might lead one to speculate that we simply haven’t spotted these galaxies yet, and that IR surveys like the Two-Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) missions might find them in time.

But as the international research team – which includes astronomers from the Astronomical Observatory of Rome (INAF), the Italian Space Agency Science Data Center and the Paris Observatory – another possibility is that dark matter is neither hot nor cold, but “warm” – i.e. consisting of middle-mass particles (also undiscovered) with FSLs that are roughly the same as objects big as galaxies.

As Dr. Nicola Menci – a researcher with the INAF and the lead author of the study – told Universe Today via email:

“The Cold Dark Matter particles are characterized by low root mean square velocities, due to their large masses (usually assumed of the order of >~ 100 GeV, a hundred times the mass of a proton). Such low thermal velocities allow for the clumping of CDM even on very small scales. Conversely, lighter dark matter particles with masses of the order of keV (around 1/500 the mass of the electron) would be characterized by larger thermal velocities, inhibiting the clumping of DM on mass scales of dwarf galaxies. This would suppress the abundance of dwarf galaxies (and of satellite galaxies) and produce shallow inner density profiles in such objects, naturally matching the observations without the need for a strong feedback from stellar populations.”

In other words, they found that the WDM could better account for the early Universe as we are seeing it today. Whereas the Lambda-CDM model would result in perturbations in densities in the early Universe, the longer FSL of warm dark matter particles would smooth these perturbations out, thus resembling what we see when we look deep into the cosmos to see the Universe during the epoch of galaxy formation.

For the sake of their study, which appeared recently in the July 1st issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the research team relied on data obtained from the Hubble Frontier Fields (HFF) program. Taking advantage of improvements made in recent years, they were able to examine the magnitude of particularly faint and distant galaxies.

The large blue light is a lensing galaxy in the foreground, called SDP81, and the red arcs are the distorted image of a more distant galaxy. By analyzing small distortions in the red, distant galaxy, astronomers have determined that a dwarf dark galaxy, represented by the white dot in the lower left, is companion to SDP81. The image is a composite from ALMA and the Hubble. Image: Y. Hezaveh, Stanford Univ./ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)/NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope
Composite image showing the lensing galaxy SDP81. The red arcs are the distorted image of a more distant galaxy, about 12 billion light years away. Credit: Y. Hezaveh, Stanford Univ./ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)/NASA/ESA/Hubble Space Telescope

As Menci explained, this is a relatively new ability which the Hubble Space Telescope would not have been able to do a few years ago:

“Since galaxy formation is deeply affected by the nature of DM on the scale of dwarf galaxies, a powerful tool to constraint DM models is to measure the abundance of low-mass galaxies at early cosmic times (high redshifts z=6-8), the epoch of their formation. This is a challenging task since it implies finding extremely faint objects (absolute magnitudes M_UV=-12 to -13) at very large distances (12-13 billion of light years) even for the Hubble Space Telescope.

“However, the Hubble Frontier Field program exploits the gravitational lensing produced by foreground galaxy clusters to amplify the light from distant galaxies. Since the formation of dwarf galaxies is suppressed in WDM models – and the strength of the suppression is larger for lighter DM particles – the high measured abundance of high-redshift dwarf galaxies (~ 3 galaxies per cube Mpc) can provide a lower limit for the WDM particle mass, which is completely independent of the stellar properties of galaxies.”

The results they obtained provided strict constraints on dark matter and early galaxy formation, and were thus consistent with what HFF has been seeing. These results could indicate that our failure to detect dark matter so far may have been the result of looking for the wrong kind of particles. But of course, these results are just one step in a larger effort, and will require further testing and confirmation.

Artist's impression of dark matter surrounding the Milky Way. (ESO/L. Calçada)
Artist’s impression of dark matter surrounding the Milky Way. (ESO/L. Calçada)

Looking ahead, Menci and his colleagues hope to obtain further information from the HFF program, and hopes that future missions will allow them to see if their findings hold up. As already noted, these include infrared astronomy missions, which are expected to “see” more of the early Universe by looking beyond the visible spectrum.

“Our results are based on the abundance of high-redshift dwarfs measured in only two fields,” he said. “However, the HFF program aims at measuring such abundances in six independent fields. The operation of the James Webb Space Telescope in the near future – with a lensing program analogous to the HFF –  will allow us to pin down the possible mechanisms for the production of WDM particles, or to rule out WDM models as alternatives to CDM,” he said. “

For almost a century, dark matter has been a pervasive and elusive mystery, always receding away the moment we think we about to figure it out. But the  deeper we look into the known Universe (and the farther back in time) the more we are able to learn about the its evolution, and thus see if they accord with our theories.

Further Reading: The Astrophysical Journal Letters, AAS Nova

Japanese 3D Galaxy Map Confirms Einstein Was One Smart Dude

On June 30th, 1905, Albert Einstein started a revolution with the publication of theory of Special Relativity. This theory, among other things, stated that the speed of light in a vacuum is the same for all observers, regardless of the source. In 1915, he followed this up with the publication of his theory of General Relativity, which asserted that gravity has a warping effect on space-time. For over a century, these theories have been an essential tool in astrophysics, explaining the behavior of the Universe on the large scale.

However, since the 1990s, astronomers have been aware of the fact that the Universe is expanding at an accelerated rate. In an effort to explain the mechanics behind this, suggestions have ranged from the possible existence of an invisible energy (i.e. Dark Energy) to the possibility that Einstein’s field equations of General Relativity could be breaking down. But thanks to the recent work of an international research team, it is now known that Einstein had it right all along.

Continue reading “Japanese 3D Galaxy Map Confirms Einstein Was One Smart Dude”

Big Bang Theory: Evolution of Our Universe

Illustration of the Big Bang Theory

How was our Universe created? How did it come to be the seemingly infinite place we know of today? And what will become of it, ages from now? These are the questions that have been puzzling philosophers and scholars since the beginning the time, and led to some pretty wild and interesting theories. Today, the consensus among scientists, astronomers and cosmologists is that the Universe as we know it was created in a massive explosion that not only created the majority of matter, but the physical laws that govern our ever-expanding cosmos. This is known as The Big Bang Theory.

For almost a century, the term has been bandied about by scholars and non-scholars alike. This should come as no surprise, seeing as how it is the most accepted theory of our origins. But what exactly does it mean? How was our Universe conceived in a massive explosion, what proof is there of this, and what does the theory say about the long-term projections for our Universe?

Continue reading “Big Bang Theory: Evolution of Our Universe”

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Dark Matter Science


Dark matter – there’s a growing feeling that we are getting closer to finding out the true nature of this elusive stuff. At least we are running a number of experiments that seem (on theoretical grounds) to have the capacity to identify it – and if they don’t… well, maybe it’s time for a rethink of the whole ball game.

There are two arguably quite separate requirements for dark matter to make sense of our current dataset and our theoretical schema for the universe. Firstly, the Standard Model of cosmology (Lambda-Cold Dark Matter) requires that 96% of the universe is composed of stuff of an unknown nature that cannot be directly observed.

About two thirds of this unknown stuff can’t possibly be matter since it apparently grows as the universe grows – so we call it dark energy. The remaining component we call dark matter since it represents a component of the dark side that is capable of generating gravity. But that’s about it. In this context, dark matter is invoked to balance the math – within a set of formulae which are already straining credibility by telling us that 96% of the universe is invisible and undetectable. So, if that was all there was to argue the case for dark matter, you would be justified if feeling a little skeptical.

But the second requirement for dark matter is much more grounded in sound observation and conventional physics. Galaxies – and the way in which galaxies cluster and dynamically interact – don’t make sense if they are composed of only the visible and other known types of matter that lie within them. The Milky Way itself is rotating in a manner that would result in much of it flying apart, if there wasn’t additional invisible matter generating additional gravitational attraction. So there are sound reasons to think that there really could be something else out there.

There’s been a recent kerfuffle about dark matter in dwarf galaxies – although this is largely about whether dark matter particles clump together at the centre or whether they are energetic particles whizzing about throughout the galaxy. Apparently the data better fit the latter scenario, which challenges the prevalent view that dark matter is ‘cold’ and prone to clumping.

Similar to the Bullet Cluster, MACS J0025.4-1222 represents the aftermath of the collision of two galaxy clusters. Most of the mass of each cluster remnant is in the cool blue regions - each having already moved beyond the collision point due to being only weakly interacting mass. The pink region represents strongly radiating and strongly interacting mass has been slowed up within the initial collision. Credit NASA.

A recent literature review on Arxiv provides a comprehensive coverage of the current status of dark matter science. Initial data from the PAMELA spacecraft, showing an anomalous cosmic ray flux, encouraged speculation that this might result from dark matter annihilating or decaying. This theory did not receive wide support, but such speculation was more recently revived with FERMI-LAT finding unexpected flows of positrons (i.e. antimatter) – followed by an announcement that FERMI-LAT and other telescopes will undertake a dedicated search for gamma ray lines arising from dark matter annihilation or decay. Here it is presumed – or at least hypothesised – that dark matter can be destroyed within the hot, dense and dynamic centres of galaxies, including our galaxy.

So space science could provide at least circumstantial evidence for one of the biggest mysteries in space science – although all findings to date are inconclusive at best.

Earth-based experiments are looking for more direct evidence of the particle nature of dark matter. For example, the Large Hadron Collider is looking for signs of supersymmetry particle signatures. The hypothesised neutralino would nicely fit the hypothesised characteristics of a dark matter particle (a particle that weakly interacts with other matter, has neutral charge, is stable over cosmic timescales and has no color charge), but there are no signs of the neutralino, or anything else clearly supersymmetrical, so far.

There are also experiments, like DAMA/LIBRA, deep down coal mines and the like, which are designed to directly identify weakly interactive massive particles – although again findings to date are all a bit inconclusive.

And ‘all a bit inconclusive’ is a statement that aptly represents the current state of dark matter science – we remain confident that there is something out there, but (obligatory play on words coming) we remain as much in the dark as ever about what exactly it is.

Further reading: Capoziello et al The missing matter problem: From the dark matter search to alternative hypotheses.