Dark Matter in Distant Galaxy Groups Mapped for the First Time

Galaxy density in the Cosmic Evolution Survey (COSMOS) field, with colors representing the redshift of the galaxies, ranging from redshift of 0.2 (blue) to 1 (red). Pink x-ray contours show the extended x-ray emission as observed by XMM-Newton.

Dark matter (actually cold, dark – non-baryonic – matter) can be detected only by its gravitational influence. In clusters and groups of galaxies, that influence shows up as weak gravitational lensing, which is difficult to nail down. One way to much more accurately estimate the degree of gravitational lensing – and so the distribution of dark matter – is to use the x-ray emission from the hot intra-cluster plasma to locate the center of mass.

And that’s just what a team of astronomers have recently done … and they have, for the first time, given us a handle on how dark matter has evolved over the last many billion years.

COSMOS is an astronomical survey designed to probe the formation and evolution of galaxies as a function of cosmic time (redshift) and large scale structure environment. The survey covers a 2 square degree equatorial field with imaging by most of the major space-based telescopes (including Hubble and XMM-Newton) and a number of ground-based telescopes.

Understanding the nature of dark matter is one of the key open questions in modern cosmology. In one of the approaches used to address this question astronomers use the relationship between mass and luminosity that has been found for clusters of galaxies which links their x-ray emissions, an indication of the mass of the ordinary (“baryonic”) matter alone (of course, baryonic matter includes electrons, which are leptons!), and their total masses (baryonic plus dark matter) as determined by gravitational lensing.

To date the relationship has only been established for nearby clusters. New work by an international collaboration, including the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE), the Laboratory of Astrophysics of Marseilles (LAM), and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), has made major progress in extending the relationship to more distant and smaller structures than was previously possible.

To establish the link between x-ray emission and underlying dark matter, the team used one of the largest samples of x-ray-selected groups and clusters of galaxies, produced by the ESA’s x-ray observatory, XMM-Newton.

Groups and clusters of galaxies can be effectively found using their extended x-ray emission on sub-arcminute scales. As a result of its large effective area, XMM-Newton is the only x-ray telescope that can detect the faint level of emission from distant groups and clusters of galaxies.

“The ability of XMM-Newton to provide large catalogues of galaxy groups in deep fields is astonishing,” said Alexis Finoguenov of the MPE and the University of Maryland, a co-author of the recent Astrophysical Journal (ApJ) paper which reported the team’s results.

Since x-rays are the best way to find and characterize clusters, most follow-up studies have until now been limited to relatively nearby groups and clusters of galaxies.

“Given the unprecedented catalogues provided by XMM-Newton, we have been able to extend measurements of mass to much smaller structures, which existed much earlier in the history of the Universe,” says Alexie Leauthaud of Berkeley Lab’s Physics Division, the first author of the ApJ study.

COSMOS-XCL095951+014049 (Subaru/NAOJ, XMM-Newton/ESA)

Gravitational lensing occurs because mass curves the space around it, bending the path of light: the more mass (and the closer it is to the center of mass), the more space bends, and the more the image of a distant object is displaced and distorted. Thus measuring distortion, or ‘shear’, is key to measuring the mass of the lensing object.

In the case of weak gravitational lensing (as used in this study) the shear is too subtle to be seen directly, but faint additional distortions in a collection of distant galaxies can be calculated statistically, and the average shear due to the lensing of some massive object in front of them can be computed. However, in order to calculate the lens’ mass from average shear, one needs to know its center.

“The problem with high-redshift clusters is that it is difficult to determine exactly which galaxy lies at the centre of the cluster,” says Leauthaud. “That’s where x-rays help. The x-ray luminosity from a galaxy cluster can be used to find its centre very accurately.”

Knowing the centers of mass from the analysis of x-ray emission, Leauthaud and colleagues could then use weak lensing to estimate the total mass of the distant groups and clusters with greater accuracy than ever before.

The final step was to determine the x-ray luminosity of each galaxy cluster and plot it against the mass determined from the weak lensing, with the resulting mass-luminosity relation for the new collection of groups and clusters extending previous studies to lower masses and higher redshifts. Within calculable uncertainty, the relation follows the same straight slope from nearby galaxy clusters to distant ones; a simple consistent scaling factor relates the total mass (baryonic plus dark) of a group or cluster to its x-ray brightness, the latter measuring the baryonic mass alone.

“By confirming the mass-luminosity relation and extending it to high redshifts, we have taken a small step in the right direction toward using weak lensing as a powerful tool to measure the evolution of structure,” says Jean-Paul Kneib a co-author of the ApJ paper from LAM and France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

The origin of galaxies can be traced back to slight differences in the density of the hot, early Universe; traces of these differences can still be seen as minute temperature differences in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – hot and cold spots.

“The variations we observe in the ancient microwave sky represent the imprints that developed over time into the cosmic dark-matter scaffolding for the galaxies we see today,” says George Smoot, director of the Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics (BCCP), a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley, and a member of Berkeley Lab’s Physics Division. Smoot shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for measuring anisotropies in the CMB and is one of the authors of the ApJ paper. “It is very exciting that we can actually measure with gravitational lensing how the dark matter has collapsed and evolved since the beginning.”

One goal in studying the evolution of structure is to understand dark matter itself, and how it interacts with the ordinary matter we can see. Another goal is to learn more about dark energy, the mysterious phenomenon that is pushing matter apart and causing the Universe to expand at an accelerating rate. Many questions remain unanswered: Is dark energy constant, or is it dynamic? Or is it merely an illusion caused by a limitation in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity?

The tools provided by the extended mass-luminosity relationship will do much to answer these questions about the opposing roles of gravity and dark energy in shaping the Universe, now and in the future.

Sources: ESA, and a paper published in the 20 January, 2010 issue of the Astrophysical Journal (arXiv:0910.5219 is the preprint)

10 Years of XMM-Newton


XMM-Newton, the ESA’s premiere space-based X-ray observatory, will celebrate 10 years of spectacular X-ray imaging of our Universe today. On the 10th of December 1999 at 14:32 GMT, XMM-Newton was launched by the European Space Agency, and tasked with the mission of observing some of the most interesting objects in the Universe with its X-ray eyes. Many objects such as black holes and neutron stars have been studied using the telescope, because these energetic objects emit light in the X-ray spectrum.

To date, over 2000 published articles have utilized information from the XMM-Newton telescope. X-rays, a very energetic form of photons, are created in extreme celestial events, such as the disks that surround black holes and the intense magnetic fields surrounding stars. By studying the X-rays emitted by a variety of celestial objects, astronomers have been able to get detailed information about the workings of the Universe.

XMM-Newton has also been crucial to the study of galaxy clusters and supermassive black holes, and has helped to create the largest catalog of cosmic X-ray sources, with over a quarter of a million entries. It has even been enlisted in the hunt for dark matter, as one theory of the substance suggests that a decayed dark matter particle would potentially emit X-rays. Exotic objects far away aren’t the only target for the observatory, though; it’s helped astronomers detect the outer edges of the atmosphere of Mars and icy comets at the outer limits of our Solar System.

Here are just a few of the stories on Universe Today that feature observations by XMM-Newton:

To celebrate the first decade of XMM-Newton’s observations, the ESA will hold a celebration in Madrid, Spain on December 10th. Here’s a link to XMM-Newton’s image gallery, and here’s one to a list of publications utilizing the telescope’s images.

Source: Eurekalert

Milky Way’s Black Hole Gave Off a Burst 300 Years Ago

Our Milky Way’s black hole is quiet – too quiet – some astronomers might say. But according to a team of Japanese astronomers, the supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy might be just as active as those in other galaxies, it’s just taking a little break. Their evidence? The echoes from a massive outburst that occurred 300 years ago.

The astronomers found evidence of the outburst using ESA’s XMM-Newton space telescope, as well as NASA and Japanese X-ray satellites. And it helps solve the mystery about why the Milky Way’s black hole is so quiet. Even though it contains 4 million times the mass of our Sun, it emits a fraction of the radiation coming from other galactic black holes.

“We have wondered why the Milky Way’s black hole appears to be a slumbering giant,” says team leader Tatsuya Inui of Kyoto University in Japan. “But now we realize that the black hole was far more active in the past. Perhaps it’s just resting after a major outburst.”

The team gathered their observations from 1994 to 2005. They watched how clouds of gas near the central black hole brightened and dimmed in X-ray light as pulses of radiation swept past. These are echoes, visible long after the black hole has gone quiet again.

One large gas cloud is known as Sagittarius B2, and it’s located 300 light-years away from the central black hole. In other words, radiation reflecting off of Sagittarius B2 must have come from the black hole 300 years previously.

By watching the region for more than 10 years, the astronomers were able to watch an event wash across the cloud. Approximately 300 years ago, the black hole unleashed a flare that made it a million times brighter than it is today.

It’s hard to explain how the black hole could vary in its radiation output so greatly. It’s possible that a supernova in the region plowed gas and dust into the vicinity of the black hole. This led to a temporary feeding frenzy that awoke the black hole and produced the great flare.

Original Source: ESA News Release