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Dark matter's odd behavior baffles astronomers

March 2, 2012

Image of the stars with orange and blue spots

In this false color image of merging galaxy cluster Abell 520, the clump of green and blue in the center shows that, unexpectedly, most of the dark matter has remained in the middle of the collision instead of passing through with the galaxies. (NASA/photo)

New results from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope confirm that, contrary to predictions, dark matter -- the invisible substance that makes up much of our universe -- and galaxies parted ways in the collision of two galaxy clusters 2.4 billion light-years away. Now, astronomers are left trying to explain dark matter's seemingly oddball behavior in the Abell 520 merging galaxy cluster.

"This result is a puzzle," said astronomer James Jee, project scientist in the Department of Physics at the University of California, Davis, who led the Hubble study. "Dark matter is not behaving as predicted, and it's not obviously clear what is going on. Theories of galaxy formation and dark matter must explain what we are seeing."

During the collision of galaxy clusters that formed Abell 520, the dark matter collected into a "dark core" containing far fewer galaxies than would be expected if the dark matter and galaxies hung together. Most of the galaxies apparently have sailed far away from the collision.

Current theories of dark matter predict that galaxies should be anchored to the invisible substance, even during the shock of a collision. The initial observations, made in 2007, were so unusual that astronomers shrugged them off as the result of poor data.

A paper reporting the team's results has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and is available online.

About dark matter

Dark matter is thought to be the gravitational "glue" that holds galaxies together. The mysterious invisible substance is not made of the same kind of matter that makes up stars, planets and people. Astronomers know little about dark matter, yet it accounts for most of the universe's mass. They have deduced dark matter's existence by observing its ghostly gravitational influence on normal matter.

One way to study dark matter is by analyzing smashups between galaxy clusters, the largest structures in the universe. When galaxy clusters collide, astronomers expect the galaxies to tag along with the dark matter. Clouds of intergalactic gas, however, plow into one another, slow down, and lag behind the impact.

That theory was supported by visible-light and X-ray observations of a colossal collision between two galaxy clusters called the Bullet Cluster, and of other colliding clusters, including one nicknamed “Perry’s cluster” which was recently described by another team led by UC Davis astronomers.

Galaxy cluster's odd behavior

But studies of Abell 520 have shown that dark matter's behavior may not be so simple. The original observations found that the system's core was rich in dark matter and hot gas but contained no luminous galaxies, which normally would be seen in the same location as the dark matter. NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory detected the hot gas. Astronomers used the Canada-France-Hawaii and Subaru telescopes atop Mauna Kea to infer the location of the dark matter by measuring how the mysterious substance bends light from more distant background galaxies, an effect called gravitational lensing.

The astronomers then turned to Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 to help bail them out of their cosmic conundrum. Instead, to their chagrin, the Hubble observations helped confirm the earlier findings. Astronomers used Hubble to map the dark matter in the cluster through the gravitational lensing technique.

"Observations like those of Abell 520 are humbling in the sense that in spite of all the leaps and bounds in our understanding, every now and then, we are stopped cold," explained Arif Babul of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, the team's senior theorist.

Is Abell 520 an oddball or is the prevailing picture of dark matter flawed? Jee thinks it's too soon to tell.

"We know of maybe six examples of high-speed galaxy cluster collisions where the dark matter has been mapped," Jee said. "But the Bullet Cluster and Abell 520 are the two that show the clearest evidence of recent mergers, and they are inconsistent with each other. No single theory explains the different behavior of dark matter in those two collisions. We need more examples."

Possible explanations

The team has proposed a half-dozen explanations for the findings, but each is unsettling for astronomers. "It's pick your poison," said team member Andisheh Mahdavi of San Francisco State University in California, who led the original Abell 520 observations in 2007. One possible explanation for the discrepancy is that Abell 520 was a more complicated interaction than the Bullet Cluster encounter. Abell 520 may have formed from a collision between three galaxy clusters, instead of just two colliding systems, as in the case of the Bullet Cluster.

Another scenario is that some dark matter may be what astronomers call "sticky." Like two snowballs smashing together, normal matter slams into each other during a collision and slows down. But dark matter blobs are thought to pass through each other during an encounter without slowing down. This scenario proposes that some dark matter interacts with itself and stays behind when galaxy clusters collide.

A third possibility is that the core contained many galaxies, but they were too dim to be seen, even by Hubble. Those galaxies would have formed dramatically fewer stars than other normal galaxies.

Armed with the Hubble data, the group hopes to create a computer simulation to try to reconstruct the collision, hoping that it yields some answers to dark matter's weird behavior.

For images and more information about Abell 520's dark core, visit: http://hubblesite.org/news/2012/10 and http://www.nasa.gov/hubble.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md., conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. in Washington, D.C.

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