In spring of 2015, dark matter may have been observed for the first time interacting with other dark matter in a way other than through the force of gravity. Observations of colliding galaxies made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope picked up the first intriguing hints about the nature of this mysterious component of the Universe.
Although dark matter cannot be seen, the team could deduce its location using a technique called gravitational lensing. The collision happened to take place directly in front of a much more distant, unrelated source. The mass of dark matter around the colliding galaxies severely distorted spacetime, deviating the path of light rays coming from the distant background galaxy — and distorting its image into characteristic arc shapes.
Our current understanding is that all galaxies exist inside clumps of dark matter. Without the constraining effect of dark matter’s gravity, galaxies like the Milky Way would fling themselves apart as they rotate. In order to prevent this, 85 percent of the Universe’s mass must exist as dark matter, and yet its true nature remains a mystery. Astronomers have found that the total mass/energy content of the Universe is split in the proportions 68% dark energy, 27% dark matter and 5% “normal” matter. So the 85% figure relates to the fraction of “matter” that is dark.
In the 2105 study, the researchers observed the four colliding galaxies and found that one dark matter clump appeared to be lagging behind the galaxy it surrounds. The dark matter is currently 5000 light-years (50 000 million million kilometres) behind the galaxy — it would take NASA’s Voyager spacecraft 90 million years to travel that far.
A lag between dark matter and its associated galaxy is predicted during collisions if dark matter interacts with itself, even very slightly, through forces other than gravity. Dark matter has never before been observed interacting in any way other than through the force of gravity.
Computer simulations show that the extra friction from the collision would make the dark matter slow down. The nature of that interaction is unknown; it could be caused by well-known effects or some exotic unknown force. All that can be said at this point is that it is not gravity.
“We used to think that dark matter just sits around, minding its own business, except for its gravitational pull," observed lead author Richard Massey at Durham University. "But if dark matter were being slowed down during this collision, it could be the first evidence for rich physics in the dark sector — the hidden Universe all around us.”
The researchers note that more investigation will be needed into other effects that could also produce a lag. Similar observations of more galaxies, and computer simulations of galaxy collisions will need to be made.
“We know that dark matter exists because of the way that it interacts gravitationally, helping to shape the Universe, but we still know embarrassingly little about what dark matter actually is," said team member Liliya Williams of the University of Minnesota. "Our observation suggests that dark matter might interact with forces other than gravity, meaning we could rule out some key theories about what dark matter might be.”
This result follows on from a recent result from the team which observed 72 collisions between galaxy clusters and found that dark matter interacts very little with itself. Galaxy clusters contain up to a thousand individual galaxies.
The new work however concerns the motion of individual galaxies, rather than clusters of galaxies. Researchers say that the collision between these galaxies could have lasted longer than the collisions observed in the previous study — allowing the effects of even a tiny frictional force to build up over time and create a measurable lag.
The main uncertainty in the result is the timespan for the collision: the friction that slowed the dark matter could have been a very weak force acting over about a billion years, or a relatively stronger force acting for “only” 100 million years.
Taken together, the two results bracket the behavior of dark matter for the first time. Dark matter interacts more than this, but less than that. Massey added: “We are finally homing in on dark matter from above and below — squeezing our knowledge from two directions.”
All four galaxies might have been separated from their dark matter. But we happen to have a very good measurement from only one galaxy, because it is by chance aligned so well with the background, gravitationally lensed object. With the other three galaxies, the lensed images are further away, so the constraints on the location of their dark matter too loose to draw statistically significant conclusions.
The Daily Galaxy via ESO