According to the most widely-accepted cosmological model, the majority of the mass in our Universe (roughly 85%) consists of “Dark Matter.” This elusive, invisible mass is theorized to interact with “normal” (or “visible”) matter through gravity alone and not electromagnetic fields, neither absorbing nor emitting light (hence the name “dark”). The search for this matter is ongoing, with candidate particles including Weakly-Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) or ultralight bosons (axions), which are at opposite extremes of the mass scale and behave very differently (in theory).
This matter’s existence is essential for our predominant theories of gravity (General Relativity) and particle physics (The Standard Model) to make sense. Otherwise, we may need to radically rethink our theories on how gravity behaves on the largest of scales (aka. Modified Gravity). However, according to new research led by the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the study of “Einstein Rings” could bring us a step closer to understanding Dark Matter. According to their paper, the way Dark Matter alters the curvature of spacetime leaves signatures that suggest it could be made up of axions!
Sometimes a strange signal comes from the dark and it takes a while to figure out what that signal means. In this case, scientists analyzing high-energy gamma rays emanating from the galaxy’s center found an unexplained source of emission that they say is “consistent with some forms of dark matter.”
The data came courtesy of NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and was analyzed by a group of independent scientists. They found that by removing all known sources of gamma rays, they were left with gamma-ray emissions that so far, they cannot explain. More observations will be needed to characterize these emissions, they cautioned.
Also, the location of the radiation at the galaxy’s center is an interesting spot, since scientists believe that’s where dark matter would lurk since the insofar invisible substance would be the base of normal structures like galaxies.
“The new maps allow us to analyze the excess and test whether more conventional explanations, such as the presence of undiscovered pulsars or cosmic-ray collisions on gas clouds, can account for it,” stated Dan Hooper, an astrophysicist at Fermilab and lead author of the study.
“The signal we find cannot be explained by currently proposed alternatives and is in close agreement with the predictions of very simple dark matter models.”
The scientists suggest that if WIMPs were destroying each other, this would be “a remarkable fit” for a dark matter signal. They again caution, though, that there could be other explanations for the phenomenon.
“Dark matter in this mass range can be probed by direct detection and by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), so if this is dark matter, we’re already learning about its interactions from the lack of detection so far,” stated co-author Tracy Slatyer, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“This is a very exciting signal, and while the case is not yet closed, in the future we might well look back and say this was where we saw dark matter annihilation for the first time.”
We keep saying dark matter is so very hard to find. Astronomers say they can see its effects — such as gravitational lensing, or an amazing bendy feat of light that takes place when a massive galaxy brings forward light from other galaxies behind it. But defining what the heck that matter is, is proving elusive. And considering it makes up most of the universe’s matter, it would be great to know what dark matter looks like.
A new experiment — billed as the most sensitive dark matter detector in the world — spent three months searching for evidence of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), which may be the basis of dark matter. So far, nothing, but researchers emphasized they have only just started work.
“Now that we understand the instrument and its backgrounds, we will continue to take data, testing for more and more elusive candidates for dark matter,” stated physicist Dan McKinsey of Yale University, who is one of the collaborators on the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) detector.
LUX operates a mile (1.6 kilometers) beneath the Earth in the state-owned Sanford Underground Research Facility, which is located in South Dakota. The underground location is perfect for this kind of work because there is little interference from cosmic ray particles.
“At the heart of the experiment is a six-foot-tall titanium tank filled with almost a third of a ton of liquid xenon, cooled to minus 150 degrees Fahrenheit. If a WIMP strikes a xenon atom it recoils from other xenon atoms and emits photons (light) and electrons. The electrons are drawn upward by an electrical field and interact with a thin layer of xenon gas at the top of the tank, releasing more photons,” stated the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which leads operations at Sanford.
“Light detectors in the top and bottom of the tank are each capable of detecting a single photon, so the locations of the two photon signals – one at the collision point, the other at the top of the tank – can be pinpointed to within a few millimeters. The energy of the interaction can be precisely measured from the brightness of the signals.”
LUX’s sensitivity for low-mass WIMPs is more than 20 times better than other detectors. That said, the detector was unable to confirm possible hints of WIMPs found in other experiments.
“Three candidate low-mass WIMP events recently reported in ultra-cold silicon detectors would have produced more than 1,600 events in LUX’s much larger detector, or one every 80 minutes in the recent run,” the laboratory added.
Don’t touch that dial yet, however. LUX plans to do more searching in the next two years. Also, the Sanford Lab is proposing an even more sensitive LUX-ZEPLIN experiment that would be 1,000 times more sensitive than LUX. No word yet on when LUX-ZEPLIN will get off the ground, however.