Follow this link to skip to the main content

The Hidden Lives of Galaxies - Hidden Mass

C. Possibilities for Dark Matter

The search for the nature of dark matter is a very active field in astronomy and physics. Scientists do not know what it is made of, but they are investigating a number of possibilities.

The chief property of dark matter is that it is "dark", i.e. that it emits no light. Not visible, not x-ray, not infrared. So it is not large clouds of hydrogen gas, since we can usually detect such clouds in the infrared or radio. In addition, dark matter must interact with visible matter gravitationally. So the dark matter must be massive enough to cause the gravitational effects that we see in galaxies and clusters of galaxies. Large clouds of hydrogen gas don't have enough mass to do what the dark matter does.

The two main categories of objects that scientists consider as possibilities for dark matter include MACHOs, and WIMPs. These are acronyms which help us to remember what they represent. Listed below are some of the pros and cons for the likelihood that they might be a component of dark matter.

MACHOs (MAssive Compact Halo Objects): MACHOs are objects ranging in size from small stars to super massive black holes. MACHOS are made of ordinary matter (like protons, neutrons and electrons). They may be black holes, neutron stars, or brown dwarfs.

Neutron Stars and Black Holes are the final result of a supernova of a massive star. They are both compact objects resulting from the supernovae of very massive stars. Neutron stars are 1.4 to 3 times the mass of the sun. Black holes are greater than 3 times the mass of the sun. Because a supernova usually leaves behind a remnant cloud of gas, these objects must travel far from the remnant to be "hidden."

up Pros:Neutron stars are very massive, and if they are isolated, they both can be dark.
down Cons:Because they result from supernovae, they are not necessarily common objects. As a result of a supernova, a release of a massive amount of energy and heavy elements should occur. However, there is no such evidence that they occur in sufficient numbers in the halo of galaxies.

Brown Dwarfs have a mass that is less than eight percent of the mass of the Sun, resulting in a mass too small to produce the nuclear reactions that make stars shine.

Astronomers have been detecting MACHOs using their gravitational effects on the light from distant objects. In formulating his theory of gravity, Einstein discovered that the gravitational attraction of a massive object can bend the path of a light ray, much like a lens does. So when a massive object passes in front of a distant object (e.g. a star or another galaxy), the light from the distant object is "focused" and the object appears brighter for a short time. Astronomers search for MACHOs (usually brown dwarfs) in the halo of our galaxy by monitoring the brightness of stars near the center of our galaxy and of stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

The MACHO Project, one of the groups using this "gravitational lens" technique, observed about 15 lensing events toward the LMC over a span of 6 years of observations. They set a limit of 20% as the contribution to the dark matter in our Galaxy due to objects with mass less than 0.5 that of the sun.

up Pros:Astronomers have observed objects that are either brown dwarfs or large planets around other stars using the properties of gravitational lenses.
down Cons:While they have been observed, astronomers have found no evidence of a large enough population of brown dwarfs that would account for all the dark matter in our Galaxy.

WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles): WIMPs are the subatomic particles which are not made up of ordinary matter. They are "weakly interacting" because they can pass through ordinary matter without any effects. They are "massive" in the sense of having mass (whether they are light or heavy depends on the particle). The prime candidates include neutrinos, axions, and neutralinos.

Neutrinos were first "invented" by physicists in the early 20th century to help make particle physics interactions work properly. They were later discovered, and physicists and astronomers had a good idea how many neutrinos there are in the universe. But they were thought to be without mass. However, in 1998 one type of neutrino was discovered to have a mass, albeit very small. This mass is too small for the neutrino to contribute significantly to the dark matter.

Axions are particles which have been proposed to explain the absence of an electrical dipole moment for the neutron. They thus serve a purpose for both particle physics and for astronomy. Although axions may not have much mass, they would have been produced abundantly in the Big Bang. Current searches for axions include laboratory experiments, and searches in the halo of our Galaxy and in the Sun.

Neutralinos are members of another set of particles which has been proposed as part of a physics theory known as supersymmetry. This theory is one that attempts to unify all the known forces in physics. Neutralinos are massive particles (they may be 30x to 5000x the mass of the proton), but they are the lightest of the electrically neutral supersymmetric particles. Astronomers and physicists are developing ways of detecting the neutralino either underground or searching the universe for signs of their interactions.

up Pros:Theoretically, there is the possibility that very massive subatomic particles, created in the right amounts, and with the right properties in the first moments of time after the Big Bang, are the dark matter of the universe. These particles are also important to physicist who seek to understand the nature of sub-atomic physics.
down Cons:The neutrino does not have enough mass to be a major component of Dark Matter. Observations have so far not detected axions or neutralinos.

There are other factors which help scientists determine the mix between MACHOs and WIMPs as components of the dark matter. Recent results by the WMAP satellite show that our universe is made up of only 4% ordinary matter. This seems to exclude a large component of MACHOs. About 23% of our universe is dark matter. This favors the dark matter being made up mostly of some type of WIMP. However, the evolution of structure in the universe indicates that the dark matter must not be fast moving, since fast moving particles prevent the clumping of matter in the universe. So while neutrinos may make up part of the dark matter, they are not a major component. Particles such as the axion and neutralino appear to have the appropriate properties to be dark matter. However, they have yet to be detected.

Recommended Activity: Dark Matter Possibilities


A service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), Dr. Andy Ptak (Director), within the Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) at NASA/GSFC

NASA Logo, National Aeronautics and Space Administration