Missing Mass? Not on our Watch—Dr. Paul Sutter Explains Dark Matter

Credit: ArsTechnica

Do you have a few minutes to spare and a thirst for knowledge about one of the greater mysteries of the Universe? Then head on over to ArsTechnica and check out the new series they’re releasing titled Edge of Knowledge, starring none other than Dr. Paul Sutter. In what promises to be an enlightening journey, Dr. Sutter will guide viewers through an eight-episode miniseries that explores the mysteries of the cosmos, such as black holes, the future of climate change, the origins of life, and (for their premiere episode) Dark Matter!

As far as astrophysicists and cosmologists are concerned, Dark Matter is one of the most enduring, frustrating, and confusing mysteries ever! Then, one must wonder why scientists are working so tirelessly to track it down? The short answer is: the most widely accepted theories of the Universe don’t make sense without out. The long answer is… it’s both complicated and long! Luckily, Dr. Sutter manages to sum it all up in less than 15 minutes. As an accomplished physicist, he also explains why it is so important that we track Dark Matter down!

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Brown Dwarfs can Spin so Fast They Almost Tear Themselves Apart

Comparing the rotation of a brown dwarf with Jupiter and Saturn. Credit: Robert Hurt (IPAC/Caltech)

We tend to image planets as spheres. Held together by gravity, the material of a planet compresses and shifts until gravity and pressure reach a balance point known as hydrostatic equilibrium. Hydrostatic equilibrium is one of the defining characteristics of a planet. If a planet were stationary and of uniform density, then at equilibrium, it would be a perfect sphere. But planets rotate, and so even the largest planets aren’t a perfect sphere.

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This Star Is The Roundest Natural Object Ever Seen

The star Kepler 11145123 is the roundest natural object ever measured in the universe, with a difference of just 3 km between the radius at the equator and the poles. Credit and ©: Mark A. Garlick

At one time, scientists believed that the Earth, the Moon, and all the other planets in our Solar System were perfect spheres. The same held true for the Sun, which they considered to be the heavenly orb that was the source of all our warmth and energy. But as time and research showed, the Sun is far from perfect. In addition to sunspots and solar flares, the Sun is not completely spherical.

For some time, astronomers believed this was the case with other stars as well. Owing to a number of factors, all stars previously studied by astronomers appeared to experience some bulging at the equator (i.e. oblateness). However, in a study published by a team of international astronomers, it now appears that a slowly rotating star located 5000 light years away is as close to spherical as we’ve ever seen!

Until now, observation of stars has been confined to only a few of the fastest-rotating nearby stars, and was only possible through interferometry. This technique, which is typically used by astronomers to obtain stellar size estimates, relies on multiple small telescopes obtaining electromagnetic readings on a star. This information is then combined to create a higher-resolution image that would be obtained by a large telescope.

Artist's impression of a white dwarf star in orbit around Sirius (a white supergiant). Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)
Artist’s impression of a Sirius, an A-type Main Sequence White star. Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

However, by conducting asteroseismic measurements of a nearby star, a team of astronomers – from the Max Planck Institute, the University of Tokyo, and New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) – were able to get a much more precise idea of its shape. Their results were published in a study titled “Shape of a Slowly Rotating Star Measured by Asteroseismology“, which recently appeared in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Laurent Gizon, a researcher with the Max Planck Institute, was the lead authjor on the paper. As he explained their research methodology to Universe Today via email:

“The new method that we propose in this paper to measure stellar shapes, asteroseismology, can be several orders of magnitude more precise than optical interferometry. It applies only to stars that oscillate in long-lived non-radial modes. The ultimate precision of the method is given by the precision on the measurement of the frequencies of the modes of oscillation. The longer the observation duration (four years in the case of Kepler), the better the precision on the mode frequencies. In the case of  KIC 11145123 the most precise mode frequencies can be determined to one part in 10,000,000. Hence the astonishing precision of asteroseismology.”

Located 5000 light years away from Earth, KIC 11145123 was considered a perfect candidate for this method. For one, Kepler 11145123 is a hot and luminous, over twice the size of our Sun, and rotates with a period of 100 days. Its oscillations are also long-lived, and correspond directly to fluctuations in its brightness. Using data obtained by NASA’s Kepler mission over a more than four year period, the team was able to get very accurate shape estimates.

The variations in brightness can be interpreted as vibrations, or oscillations within the stars, using a technique called asteroseismology. The oscillations reveal information about the internal structure of the stars, in much the same way that seismologists use earthquakes to probe the Earth's interior. Credit: Kepler Astroseismology team.
The variations in brightness can be interpreted as vibrations, or oscillations within the stars, using a technique called asteroseismology. Credit: Kepler Astroseismology team.

“We compared the frequencies of the modes of oscillation that are more sensitive to the low-latitude regions of the star to the frequencies of the modes that are more sensitive to higher latitudes,” said Gizon. “This comparison showed that the difference in radius between the equator and the poles is only 3 km with a precision of 1 km. This makes Kepler 11145123 the roundest natural object ever measured, it is even more round than the Sun.”

For comparison, our Sun has a rotational period of about 25 days, and the difference between its polar and equatorial radii is about 10 km. And on Earth, which has a rotational period of less than a day (23 hours 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds), there is a difference of over 23 km (14.3 miles) between its polar and equator. The reason for this considerable difference is something of a mystery.

In the past, astronomers have found that the shape of a star can come down to multiple factors – such as their rotational velocity, magnetic fields, thermal asphericities, large-scale flows, strong stellar winds, or the gravitational influence of stellar companions or giant planets. Ergo, measuring the “asphericity” (i.e. the degree to which a star is NOT a sphere) can tell astronomers much about the star structures and its system of planets.

Ordinarily, rotational velocity has been seen to have a direct bearing on the stars asphericity – i.e. the faster it rotates, the more oblate it is. However, when looking at data obtained by the Kepler probe over a period of four years, they noticed that its oblateness was only a third of what they expected, given its rotational velocity.

Laurent Gizon, the lead researcher of the study, pictured comparing images of our Sun and Kepler 11145123. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany.
Laurent Gizon, the lead researcher of the study, pictured with asteroseismic readings of Kepler 11145123. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany.

As such, they were forced to conclude that something else was responsible for the star’s highly spherical shape. “”We propose that the presence of a magnetic field at low latitudes could make the star look more spherical to the stellar oscillations,” said Gizon. “It is known in solar physics that acoustic waves propagate faster in magnetic regions.”

Looking to the future, Gizon and his colleagues hope to examine other stars like Kepler 11145123. In our Galaxy alone, there are many stars who’s oscillations can be accurately measured by observing changes in their brightness. As such, the international team hopes to apply their asteroseismology method to other stars observed by Kepler, as well as upcoming missions like TESS and PLATO.

“Just like helioseismology can be used to study the Sun’s magnetic field, asteroseismology can be used to study magnetism on distant stars,” Gizon added. “This is the main message of this study.”

Further Reading: ScienceMag, Max Planck Institute

M31’s Odd Rotation Curve

Early on in astronomical history, galactic rotation curves were expected to be simple; they should operate much like the solar system in which inner objects orbit faster and outer objects slower. To the surprise of many astronomers, when rotation curves were eventually worked out, they appeared mostly flat. The conclusion was that the mass we see was only a small fraction of the total mass and that a mysterious Dark Matter must be holding the galaxies together, forcing them to rotate more like a solid body.

Recent observations of the Andromeda Galaxy’s (M31) rotation curve has shown that there may yet be more to learn. In the outermost edges of the galaxy, the rotation rate has been shown to increase. And M31 isn’t alone. According to Noordermeer et al. (2007) “in some cases, such as UGC 2953, UGC 3993 or UGC 11670 there are indications that the rotation curves start to rise again at the outer edges of the HI discs.” A new paper by a team of Spanish astronomers attempts to explain this oddity.

Although many spiral galaxies have been discovered with the odd rising rotational velocities near their outer edges, Andromeda is both one of the most prominent and the closest. Detailed studies from Corbelli et al. (2010) and Chemin et al. (2009), mapped out the rise in HI gas, showing that the velocity increases some 50 km/s in the outer 7 kiloparsecs mapped. This makes up a significant fraction of the total radius given the studies extended to only ~38 kiloparsecs. While conventional models with Dark Matter are able to reproduce the rotational velocities of the inner portions of the galaxy, they have not explained this outer feature and instead predict that it should slowly fall off.

The new study, led by B. Ruiz-Granados and J.A. Rubino-Martin from the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, attempts to explain this oddity using a force with which astronomers are very familiar: Magnetic fields. This force has been shown to decrease less rapidly than others over galactic distances and in particular, studies of M31’s magnetic field shows that it slowly changes angle with distance from the center of the galaxy. This slowly changing angle works in such a manner as to decrease the angle between the field and the direction of motion of particles within it. As a result, “the field becomes more tightly wound with increasing galactocentric distance” making the decrease in strength even slower.

Although galactic magnetic fields are weak by most standards, the sheer amount of matter they can affect and the charged nature of many gas clouds means that even weak fields may play an important role. M31’s magnetic field has been estimated to be ~4.6 microGauss. When a magnetic field with this value is added into the modeling equations, the team found that it greatly improved the fit of models to the observed rotation curve, matching the increase in rotational velocity.

The team notes that this finding is still speculative as the understanding of the magnetic fields at such distances is based solely on modeling. Although the magnetic field has been explored for the inner portions of the galaxy (roughly the inner 15 kiloparsecs), no direct measurement has yet been made in the regions in question. However, this model makes strict observational predictions which could be confirmed by future missions LOFAR and SKA.