Scientists Discover Massive Galaxy Made of 99.99 Percent Dark Matter

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Using the world’s most powerful telescopes, an international team of astronomers has discovered a massive galaxy that consists almost entirely of Dark Matter. Using the W. M. Keck Observatory and the Gemini North telescope – both on Maunakea, Hawaii – the team found a galaxy whose mass is almost entirely Dark Matter. The findings are being published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters today.

Dragonfly 44
The dark galaxy Dragonfly 44. Credit: Pieter Van Dokkum, Roberto Abraham Gemini, Sloan Digital Sky Survey
Even though it is relatively nearby, the galaxy, named Dragonfly 44, had been missed by astronomers for decades because it is very dim. It was discovered just last year when the Dragonfly Telephoto Array observed a region of the sky in the constellation Coma. Upon further scrutiny, the team realized the galaxy had to have more than meets the eye: it has so few stars that it quickly would be ripped apart unless something was holding it together.

To determine the amount of Dark Matter in Dragonfly 44, astronomers used the DEIMOS instrument installed on Keck II to measure the velocities of stars for 33.5 hours over a period of six nights so they could determine the galaxy’s mass. The team then used the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS) on the 8-meter Gemini North telescope on Maunakea in Hawaii to reveal a halo of spherical clusters of stars around the galaxy’s core, similar to the halo that surrounds our Milky Way Galaxy.

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New Hypervelocity Binary Star Challenges Dark Matter, Stellar Acceleration Models

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

A team of astronomers at the Friedrich Alexander University led by Péter Németh has discovered a binary star moving nearly at the escape velocity of our galaxy. There are about two dozen so-called hypervelocity stars known to be escaping the galaxy. While all of them are single stars, PB3877 is the first wide binary star found to travel at such a high speed. Additionally, the results of the new study challenge the commonly accepted scenario that hypervelocity stars are accelerated by the supermassive black hole at the galactic center. The findings are being published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters today.

PB3877 Binary
PB3877 is a hyper-velocity wide binary star zooming through the outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy. This image shows its current location as well as our Sun.
The team, in collaboration with researchers from the California Institute of Technology, showed the binary cannot originate from the Galactic Center, and no other mechanism is known that is able to accelerate a wide binary to such a high velocity without disrupting it. They therefore hypothesized there must be a lot of dark matter to keep the star bound to the Milky Way galaxy; or the binary star, PB3877, could be an intruder that has been born in another galaxy and may or may not leave the Milky Way again.

PB3877 was first reported to be a hyper-velocity, hot compact star, when it was discovered form the Sloan Digital Sky-Survey (SDSS) data in 2011. New spectroscopic observations were done with the 10 meter Keck II telescope at W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawaii and with the 8.2 meter Very Large Telescope (VLT) of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile.Caltech astronomers Thomas Kupfer and Felix Fürst observed PB3877 with the ESI Instrument fitted on the Keck II telescope.

“When we looked at the new data, much to our surprise, we found weak absorption lines that could not come from the hot star,” Kupfer said. “The cool companion, just like the hot primary, shows a high radial velocity. Hence, the two stars form a binary system, which is the first hyper-velocity wide binary candidate.”

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The Dark Matter Conspiracy

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

An international team of astronomers, led by Michele Cappellari from the University of Oxford, has used data gathered by the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to analyze the motions of stars in the outer parts of elliptical galaxies, in the first such survey to capture large numbers of these galaxies. The team discovered surprising gravitational similarities between spiral and elliptical galaxies, implying the influence of hidden forces. The study will be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Stellar Velocities in a Galaxy
The top panel shows the original stellar velocity data, as collected using the DEIMOS spectrograph at the W.M. Keck Observatory. The bottom panel shows a numerical model that matches the data remarkably well. Credit: M. Cappellari and the SLUGGS team
The scientists from the USA, Australia, and Europe used the powerful DEIMOS spectrograph installed on the world’s largest optical telescope at Keck Observatory to conduct a major survey of nearby galaxies called SLUGGS, which mapped out the speeds of their stars. The team then applied Newton’s law of gravity to translate these speed measurements into the amounts of matter distributed within the galaxies.

“The DEIMOS spectrograph was crucial for this discovery since it can take in data from an entire giant galaxy all at once, while at the same time sampling the speeds of its stars at a hundred separate locations with exquisite accuracy,” said Aaron Romanowsky, of San Jose State University.

One of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century was that the spectacular spiral galaxies, such as our own Milky Way, rotate much faster than expected, powered by an extra gravitational force of invisible “dark matter” as it is now called. Since this discovery 40 years ago, we have learned that this mysterious substance, which is probably an exotic elementary particle, makes up about 85 percent of the mass in the Universe, leaving only 15 percent to be the ordinary stuff encountered in our everyday lives. Dark matter is central to our understanding of how galaxies form and evolve – and is ultimately one of the reasons for the existence of life on Earth – yet we know almost nothing about it.

“The surprising finding of our study was that elliptical galaxies maintain a remarkably constant circular speed out to large distances from their centers, in the same way that spiral galaxies are already known to do,” said Cappellari. “This means that in these very different types of galaxies, stars and dark matter conspire to redistribute themselves to produce this effect, with stars dominating in the inner regions of the galaxies, and a gradual shift in the outer regions to dark matter dominance.”

Stellar Velocity in a Galaxy
The speeds of stars on circular orbits have been measured around both spiral and elliptical galaxies. Credit: M. Cappellari and the SLUGGS team
However, the conspiracy does not come out naturally from models of dark matter, and some disturbing fine-tuning is required to explain the observations. For this reason, the conspiracy even led some authors to suggest that, rather than being due to dark matter, it may be due to Newton’s law of gravity becoming progressively less accurate at large distances. Remarkably, decades after it was proposed, this alternative theory (without dark matter) still cannot be conclusively ruled out.

Spiral galaxies only constitute less than half of the stellar mass in the Universe, which is dominated by elliptical and lenticular galaxies, and which have puffier configurations of stars and lack the flat disks of gas that spirals have. In these galaxies, it has been very difficult technically to measure their masses and to find out how much dark matter they have, and how this is distributed – until now.

Because the elliptical galaxies have different shapes and formation histories than spiral galaxies, the newly discovered conspiracy is even more profound and will lead experts in dark matter and galaxy formation to think carefully about what has happened in the “dark sector” of the universe.

“This question is particularly timely in this period when physicists at CERN are about to restart the Large Hadron Collider to try to directly detect the same elusive dark matter particle, which makes galaxies rotate fast, if it really exists!,” said Professor Jean Brodie, principal investigator of the SLUGGS survey.

Cosmic Web Imager Coming to Keck

Caltech press release

Caltech astronomers have taken unprecedented images of the intergalactic medium (IGM)—the diffuse gas that connects galaxies throughout the universe—with the Cosmic Web Imager, an instrument designed and built at Caltech. Until now, the structure of the IGM has mostly been a matter for theoretical speculation. However, with observations from the Cosmic Web Imager, deployed on the Hale 200-inch telescope at Palomar Observatory, astronomers are obtaining our first three-dimensional pictures of the IGM. The Cosmic Web Imager will make possible a new understanding of galactic and intergalactic dynamics, and it has already detected one possible spiral-galaxy-in-the-making that is three times the size of our Milky Way.

Lyman Alpha Blob
Comparison of Lyman alpha blob observed with Cosmic Web Imager and a simulation of the cosmic web based on theoretical predictions.
Credit: Christopher Martin, Robert Hurt
The Cosmic Web Imager was conceived and developed by Caltech professor of physics Christopher Martin. “I’ve been thinking about the intergalactic medium since I was a graduate student,” says Martin. “Not only does it comprise most of the normal matter in the universe, it is also the medium in which galaxies form and grow.”

Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, theoreticians have predicted that primordial gas from the Big Bang is not spread uniformly throughout space, but is instead distributed in channels that span galaxies and flow between them. This “cosmic web”—the IGM—is a network of smaller and larger filaments crisscrossing one another across the vastness of space and back through time to an era when galaxies were first forming and stars were being produced at a rapid rate.

Martin describes the diffuse gas of the IGM as “dim matter,” to distinguish it from the bright matter of stars and galaxies, and the dark matter and energy that compose most of the universe. Though you might not think so on a bright sunny day or even a starlit night, fully 96 percent of the mass and energy in the universe is dark energy and dark matter (first inferred by Caltech’s Fritz Zwicky in the 1930s), whose existence we know of only due to its effects on the remaining 4 percent that we can see: normal matter. Of this 4 percent that is normal matter, only one-quarter is made up of stars and galaxies, the bright objects that light our night sky. The remainder, which amounts to only about 3 percent of everything in the universe, is the IGM.

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Astronomers Map Dark Matter Filament

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Astronomers using the W. M. Keck Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, and other telescopes on Mauna Kea have studied a giant filament of dark matter in 3D for the first time. Extending 60 million light-years from one of the most massive galaxy clusters known, the filament is part of the cosmic web that constitutes the large-scale structure of the Universe, and is a leftover of the very first moments after the Big Bang. If the high mass measured for the filament is representative of the rest of the Universe, then these structures may contain more than half of all the mass in the Universe.

The theory of the Big Bang predicts that variations in the density of matter in the very first moments of the Universe led the bulk of the matter in the cosmos to condense into a web of tangled filaments. This view is supported by computer simulations of cosmic evolution, which suggest that the Universe is structured like a web, with long filaments that connect to each other at the locations of massive galaxy clusters. However, these filaments, although vast, are made mainly of dark matter, which is incredibly difficult to observe.

Dark Matter Filament
Reconstruction of a dark matter filament superimposed on the galaxy cluster. Credit: Image by ESA. Additional elements by K. Teramura, Univ. Hawaii Institute for Astronomy

The first convincing identification of a section of one of these filaments was made earlier this year. Now a team of astronomers has gone further by probing a filament’s structure in three dimensions. Seeing a filament in 3D eliminates many of the pitfalls that come from studying the flat image of such a structure.

“Filaments of the cosmic web are hugely extended and very diffuse, which makes them extremely difficult to detect, let alone study in 3D,” says Mathilde Jauzac (LAM, France and University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa), lead author of the study.

The team combined high resolution images of the region around the massive galaxy cluster MACS J0717.5+3745 (or MACS J0717 for short), taken using Hubble, NAOJ’s Subaru Telescope and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, with spectroscopic data on the galaxies within it from the W. M. Keck Observatory and the Gemini Observatory. Analyzing these observations together gives a complete view of the shape of the filament as it extends out from the galaxy cluster almost along our line of sight.

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