Dark matter, the mysterious substance that constitutes most of the material universe, remains as elusive as ever. Although experiments on the ground and in space have yet to find a trace of dark matter, the results are helping scientists rule out some of the many theoretical possibilities.
Three studies published earlier this year, using six or more years of data from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, have broadened the mission’s dark matter hunt using some novel approaches.
“We’ve looked for the usual suspects in the usual places and found no solid signals, so we’ve started searching in some creative new ways,” said Julie McEnery, Fermi project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “With these results, Fermi has excluded more candidates, has shown that dark matter can contribute to only a small part of the gamma-ray background beyond our galaxy, the Milky Way, and has produced strong limits for dark matter particles in the second-largest galaxy orbiting it.”
Dark matter neither emits nor absorbs light, primarily interacts with the rest of the universe through gravity, yet accounts for about 80 percent of the matter in the universe. Astronomers see its effects throughout the cosmos — in the rotation of galaxies, in the distortion of light passing through galaxy clusters, and in simulations of the early universe, which require the presence of dark matter to form galaxies at all.
The leading candidates for dark matter are different classes of hypothetical particles. Scientists think gamma rays, the highest-energy form of light, can help reveal the presence of some of types of proposed dark matter particles. Previously, Fermi has searched for tell-tale gamma-ray signals associated with dark matter in the center of our galaxy and in small dwarf galaxies orbiting our own. Although no convincing signals were found, these results eliminated candidates within a specific range of masses and interaction rates, further limiting the possible characteristics of dark matter particles.
Among the new studies, the most exotic scenario investigated was the possibility that dark matter might consist of hypothetical particles called axions or other particles with similar properties. An intriguing aspect of axion-like particles is their ability to convert into gamma rays and back again when they interact with strong magnetic fields. These conversions would leave behind characteristic traces, like gaps or steps, in the spectrum of a bright gamma-ray source.
Manuel Meyer at Stockholm University led a study to search for these effects in the gamma rays from NGC 1275, the central galaxy of the Perseus galaxy cluster, located about 240 million light-years away. High-energy emissions from NGC 1275 are thought to be associated with a supermassive black hole at its center. Like all galaxy clusters, the Perseus cluster is filled with hot gas threaded with magnetic fields, which would enable the switch between gamma rays and axion-like particles. This means some of the gamma rays coming from NGC 1275 could convert into axions — and potentially back again — as they make their way to us.
Meyer’s team collected observations from Fermi’s Large Area Telescope (LAT) and searched for predicted distortions in the gamma-ray signal. The findings, published April 20, 2016 in Physical Review Letters, exclude a small range of axion-like particles that could have comprised about 4 percent of dark matter.
Another broad class of dark matter candidates are called Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs). In some versions, colliding WIMPs either mutually annihilate or produce an intermediate, quickly decaying particle. Both scenarios result in gamma rays that can be detected by the LAT.
► Read the full story>> http://go.nasa.gov/2aQGRNR
► Image explanation: Top: Gamma rays (magenta lines) coming from a bright source like NGC 1275 in the Perseus galaxy cluster should form a particular type of spectrum (right). Bottom: Gamma rays convert into hypothetical axion-like particles (green dashes) and back again when they encounter magnetic fields (gray curves). The resulting gamma-ray spectrum (lower curve at right) would show unusual steps and gaps not seen in Fermi data, which means a range of these particles cannot make up a portion of dark matter.
Credits: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory/Chris Smith