What are WIMPs?

WIMPs are Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, hypothetical particles which may be the main (or only) component of Dark Matter, a form of matter which emits and absorbs no light and which comprises approx 75% of all mass in the observable universe.

The ‘weakly’ is a bit of a pun; WIMPs would interact with themselves and with other forms of mass only through the weak force (and gravity); get it? More plays on words: WIMP, the word, was created after the term MACHO (Massive Astrophysical Compact Halo Object) entered the scientific literature.

WIMPs are massive particles because they are not light; they would have masses considerably greater than the mass of the proton (for example). Being massive, WIMPs would likely be cold; in astrophysics ‘cold’ doesn’t mean ‘below zero’, it means the average speed of the particles is well below c. Neutrinos are weakly interacting particles, but they are not massive, so they cannot be WIMPs (besides, neutrinos aren’t hypothetical, and they’re hot, very hot … they travel at speeds just a teensy bit below c).

Or maybe they are … if there is a kind of neutrino which is really, really massive (a TeV say) then it would certainly be a WIMP! However, the latest results from WMAP seem to rule out this kind of WIMP-as-neutrino.

There are quite a few experiments – active or planned – looking for WIMPs; some Universe Today stories on them are New Proposal to Search for Dark Matter, Searching for Dark Matter Particles Here on Earth, Digging for Dark Matter, the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) Detector, and A Prototype Detector for Dark Matter in the Milky Way. It may turn out that WIMPs remain entirely hypothetical (the particles which comprise Dark Matter may not be WIMPs, for example) or only a minor component of Dark Matter. In the latter case they’d follow MACHOs not only because they were named at a later time … MACHOs have been detected in the Milky Way halo, but there aren’t anywhere near enough of them to account for the rotation curve of our galaxy.

This section of a review by Princeton University’s Dave Spergel is rather old but still one of the best concise technical descriptions; and this Particle Data Group review (PDF file) lists WIMP searches (though it’s a bit dated). NASA’s Imagine the Universe! has a page on Possibilities for Dark Matter that includes a simple overview of WIMPs.

Want to hear, rather than read, more? Check out the Astronomy Cast episode The Search for Dark Matter!

Source: NASA

Supernova 1987A

The first supernova in 1987 (that’s what the “A” means) was the brightest supernova in several centuries (and the first observed since the invention of the telescope), the first (and so far only) one to be detected by its neutrino emissions, and the only one in the LMC (Large Magellanic Cloud) observed directly.

Ian Shelton, then a research assistant with the University of Toronto, working at the university’s Las Campanas station, and Oscar Duhalde, a telescope operator at Las Campanas Observatory, were the first to spot it, on the night of 23/24 February 1987 (around midnight actually); over the next 24 hours several others also independently discovered it.

The IAU’s CBAT went wild! That’s the International Astronomical Union’s Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, the clearing house for astronomers for breaking news. You can read the historic IAUC (C for Circular) 4416 here.

Once the discovery of SN 1987A became known, physicists examined the records from various neutrino detectors … and found three, independent, clear signals of a burst of neutrinos several hours before visual discovery, just as predicted by astrophysical models! Champagne flowed.

Not long afterwards, the star which blew up so spectacularly – the progenitor – was identified as Sanduleak -69° 202a, a blue supergiant. This was not what was expected for a Type II supernova (the models said red supergiants), but an explanation was quickly found (Sanduleak -69° 202a had a lower-than-modelled oxygen abundance, affecting the transparency of its outer envelope).

The iconic Hubble Space Telescope image (above) of SN 1987A shows the inner ring, where the debris from the explosion is colliding with matter expelled from the progenitor about 20,000 years ago; more from the Hubble here.

AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers) has a nice write-up of SN 1987A.

No wonder, then, that SN 1987A features so often in Universe Today stories; for example Supernova Shockwave Slams into Stellar Bubble, XMM-Newton’s View of Supernova 1987A, Supernova Left No Core Behind, and Hubble Sees a Ring of Pearls Around 1987 Supernova.

SN 1987A figures prominently in Astronomy Cast The Search for Neutrinos, and in Nebulae.

University of Oregon