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Astronomers Find Direct Evidence of Dark Matter

22 Aug 2006

A team of astronomers has seen direct evidence for the exisitence of dark matter in the collision of two large clusters of galaxies. Using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, the team observed dark matter and normal matter being wrenched apart by this tremendous collision.

"This is the most energetic cosmic event, besides the Big Bang, which we know about," said team member Maxim Markevitch of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

These observations provide the strongest evidence yet that most of the matter in the universe is dark. Despite considerable evidence for dark matter, some scientists have proposed alternative theories for gravity where it is stronger on intergalactic scales than predicted by Newton and Einstein, removing the need for dark matter. However, such theories cannot explain the observed effects of this collision.

"A universe that's dominated by dark stuff seems preposterous, so we wanted to test whether there were any basic flaws in our thinking," said Doug Clowe of the University of Arizona at Tucson, and leader of the study. "These results are direct proof that dark matter exists."

In galaxy clusters, the normal matter, like the atoms that make up the stars, planets, and everything on Earth, is primarily in the form of hot gas and stars. The mass of the hot gas between the galaxies is far greater than the mass of the stars in all of the galaxies. This normal matter is bound in the cluster by the gravity of an even greater mass of dark matter. Without dark matter, which is invisible and can only be detected through its gravity, the fast-moving galaxies and the hot gas would quickly fly apart.

The team was granted more than 100 hours on the Chandra telescope to observe the galaxy cluster 1E0657-56. The cluster is also known as the bullet cluster, because it contains a spectacular bullet-shaped cloud of hundred-million-degree gas. The X-ray image shows the bullet shape is due to a wind produced by the high-speed collision of a smaller cluster with a larger one.

A composite image of the various observations of the galaxy cluster 1E
0657-66.  The galaxies making up the cluster are from optical images 
taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and Magellen.  On either side of 
the center of the cluster, the pink clumps show the hot gas detected 
by Chandra. Just outside this gas (shown in blue) are regions where
the bulk of the matter resides. This matter, detected via
gravitational lensing, shows that dark matter makes up most of the
mass of the cluster.
A composite image of the various observations of the galaxy cluster 1E 0657-66. The galaxies making up the cluster are from optical images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and Magellen Telescope. On either side of the center of the cluster, the pink clumps show the hot gas detected by Chandra. Just outside this gas are regions where the bulk of the matter resides (shown in blue). This matter, detected via gravitational lensing, shows that dark matter makes up most of the mass of the cluster.
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/M.Markevitch et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI; Magellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al.; Lensing Map: NASA/STScI; ESO WFI; Magellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al.

In addition to the Chandra observation, the Hubble Space Telescope, the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope and the Magellan optical telescopes were used to determine the location of the mass in the clusters. This was done by measuring the effect of gravitational lensing, where gravity from the clusters distorts light from background galaxies as predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity.

The hot gas in this collision was slowed by a drag force, similar to air resistance. In contrast, the dark matter was not slowed by the impact, because it does not interact directly with itself or the gas except through gravity. This produced the separation of the dark and normal matter seen in the data. If hot gas was the most massive component in the clusters, as proposed by alternative gravity theories, such a separation would not have been seen. Instead, dark matter is required.

Using gravitational lensing to detect dark matter. Gravitational lensing can be used to determine the location of mass in a galaxy cluster. Gravity from mass in the galaxy cluster distorts light from background galaxies. In the idealized case shown here, two distorted images of one background galaxy are seen above and below the real location of the galaxy. By looking at the shapes of many different background galaxies, it is possible to make a map showing where the gravity and therefore the mass in the cluster is located. This technique can show where dark matter resides. (Illustration Credit : NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

"This is the type of result that future theories will have to take into account," said Sean Carroll, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago, who was not involved with the study. "As we move forward to understand the true nature of dark matter, this new result will be impossible to ignore."

This result also gives scientists more confidence that the Newtonian gravity familiar on Earth and in the solar system also works on the huge scales of galaxy clusters.

"We've closed this loophole about gravity, and we've come closer than ever to seeing this invisible matter," Clowe said.

These results are being published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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Imagine the Universe! is a service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), Dr. Alan Smale (Director), within the Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

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This page last updated: Monday, 13-Nov-2006 11:48:02 EST