Public Release: 

Dark matter might not be interactive after all

Royal Astronomical Society

Astronomers are back in the dark about what dark matter might be, after new observations showed the mysterious substance may not be interacting with forces other than gravity after all. Dr Andrew Robertson of Durham University will today (Friday 6 April) present the new results at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science in Liverpool.

Three years ago, a Durham-led international team of researchers thought they had made a breakthrough in ultimately identifying what dark matter is.

Observations using the Hubble Space Telescope appeared to show that a galaxy in the Abell 3827 cluster - approximately 1.3 billion light years from Earth - had become separated from the dark matter surrounding it.

Such an offset is predicted during collisions if dark matter interacts with forces other than gravity, potentially providing clues about what the substance might be.

The chance orientation at which the Abell 3827 cluster is seen from Earth makes it possible to conduct highly sensitive measurements of its dark matter.

However, the same group of astronomers now say that new data from more recent observations shows that dark matter in the Abell 3827 cluster has not separated from its galaxy after all. The measurement is consistent with dark matter feeling only the force of gravity.

Lead author Dr Richard Massey, in the Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy, at Durham University, said: "The search for dark matter is frustrating, but that's science. When data improves, the conclusions can change.

"Meanwhile the hunt goes on for dark matter to reveal its nature.

"So long as dark matter doesn't interact with the Universe around it, we are having a hard time working out what it is."

The Universe is composed of approximately 27 per cent dark matter with the remainder largely consisting of the equally mysterious dark energy. Normal matter, such as planets and stars, contributes a relatively small five per cent of the Universe.

There is believed to be about five times more dark matter than all the other particles understood by science, but nobody knows what it is.

However, dark matter is an essential factor in how the Universe looks today, as without the constraining effect of its extra gravity, galaxies like our Milky Way would fling themselves apart as they spin.

In this latest study, the researchers used the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile, South America, to view the Abell 3827 cluster.

ALMA picked up on the distorted infra-red light from an unrelated background galaxy, revealing the location of the otherwise invisible dark matter that remained unidentified in their previous study.

Research co-author Professor Liliya Williams, of the University of Minnesota, said: "We got a higher resolution view of the distant galaxy using ALMA than from even the Hubble Space Telescope.

"The true position of the dark matter became clearer than in our previous observations."

While the new results show dark matter staying with its galaxy, the researchers said it did not necessarily mean that dark matter does not interact. Dark matter might just interact very little, or this particular galaxy might be moving directly towards us, so we would not expect to see its dark matter displaced sideways, the team added.

Several new theories of non-standard dark matter have been invented over the past two years and many have been simulated at Durham University using high-powered supercomputers.

Robertson, who is a co-author of the work, and based at Durham University's Institute for Computational Cosmology, added: "Different properties of dark matter do leave tell-tale signs.

"We will keep looking for nature to have done the experiment we need, and for us to see it from the right angle.

"One especially interesting test is that dark matter interactions make clumps of dark matter more spherical. That's the next thing we're going to look for."

To measure the dark matter in hundreds of galaxy clusters and continue this investigation, Durham University has just finished helping to build the new SuperBIT telescope, which gets a clear view by rising above the Earth's atmosphere under a giant helium balloon.

The research was funded by the Royal Society and the Science and Technology Facilities Council in the UK and NASA. The findings will appear in a new paper in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.


Media contacts

Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7802 877 699

Ms Anita Heward
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7756 034 243

Dr Morgan Hollis
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7802 877 700

Dr Helen Klus
Royal Astronomical Society

Dr Marieke Baan
European Astronomical Society
Mob: +31 6 14 32 26 27

Alternatively, please contact the Durham University Marketing and Communications Office
Tel: +44 (0)191 334 6075

Science contacts

Dr Richard Massey
Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy
Durham University
[Available for interview Wednesday 4 - Friday 6 April]
Mob: +44 (0)7740 648 080

Dr Andrew Robertson
Institute for Computational Cosmology
Durham University
[Available for interview Wednesday 4 - Friday 6 April]
Mob: +44 (0)7954 364 755

Both Dr Massey and Dr Robertson will be attending the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS) meeting in Liverpool (3-6 April)

Professor Liliya Williams
School of Physics and Astronomy
University of Minnesota
[Available for interview on Tuesday 3 - Thursday 5 April]
Tel: +1 612-624-1084

Images and captions
Hubble Space Telescope image of the four giant galaxies at the heart of cluster Abell 3827. An almost 3-hour exposure shows the view at wavelengths visible to the human eye, and the near infrared, as used in the original 2015 study. The distorted image of a more distant galaxy behind the cluster is faintly visible, wrapped around the four galaxies. Credit: NASA/ESA/Richard Massey (Durham University)
A view of the four central galaxies at the heart of cluster Abell 3827, at a broader range of wavelengths, including Hubble Space Telescope imaging in the ultraviolet (shown as blue), and Atacama Large Millimetre Array imaging at very long (sub-mm) wavelengths (shown as red contour lines). At these wavelengths, the foreground cluster becomes nearly transparent, enabling the background galaxy to be more clearly seen. It is now easier to identify how that background galaxy has been distorted. Credit: NASA/ESA/ESO/Richard Massey (Durham University)
A wide-field optical image of galaxy cluster Abell 3827. Credit: ESO
The Superpressure Balloon-borne Imaging Telescope (SuperBIT) has just been built by an international team of scientists and engineers from Durham University, Princeton University, the University of Toronto, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The telescope achieves an uninterrupted view of the night sky by rising above 99 per cent of the Earth's atmosphere under a helium balloon the size of a football stadium. This novel route into space costs a tiny fraction of a rocket launch and is far quicker to design. Following two successful test flights, SuperBIT is scheduled to fly for three months from New Zealand in 2019. From there, it will measure the distribution of dark matter around 200 galaxy clusters, something that would have been impossible using existing technology like the Hubble Space Telescope. Photo credit: SuperBIT/Richard Massey.

Videos (Mp4 format) and captions
A supercomputer simulation of a collision between two galaxy clusters, similar to the real object known as the 'Bullet Cluster', and showing the same effects tested for in Abell 3827. All galaxy clusters contain stars (orange), hydrogen gas (shown as red) and invisible dark matter (shown as blue). Individual stars, and individual galaxies are so far apart from each other that they whizz straight past each other. The diffuse gas slows down and becomes separated from the galaxies, due to the forces between ordinary particles that act as friction. If dark matter feels only the force of gravity, it should stay in the same place as the stars, but if it feels other forces, its trajectory through this giant particle collider would be changed. Credit: Andrew Robertson/Institute for Computational Cosmology/Durham University
A simulation of the same collision if dark matter consisted of extremely strongly 'self-interacting' particles that feel large forces in addition to gravity. The resulting distribution of dark matter and gas disagrees with what is observed in the real Universe - indeed, the interaction is so strong in this case that the dark matter stopped close to the point of impact. Since this is not seen in the real Universe, this enables us to rule out this particular model of dark matter. Credit: Andrew Robertson/Institute for Computational Cosmology/Durham University
A simulation of the same collision if dark matter didn't exist. The resulting distribution of stars and gas disagrees with what is observed in the real Universe, which provides compelling evidence that dark matter is present in the real Universe. Credit: Andrew Robertson/Institute for Computational Cosmology/Durham University

Images and video are also available on request from the Durham University Marketing and Communications Office (details above)

Further information

The new research will appear in "Dark matter dynamics in Abell 3827: new data consistent with standard Cold Dark Matter", R. Massey et al., Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in press.

It follows up the 2015 research paper, "The behaviour of dark matter associated with four bright cluster galaxies in the 10 kpc core of Abell 3827", R. Massey et al., Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 449, Issue 4, 1 June 2015, Pages 3393-3406.

Notes for editors

The European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (EWASS 2018) will take place at the Arena and Conference Centre (ACC) in Liverpool from 3 - 6 April 2018. Bringing together around 1500 astronomers and space scientists, the conference is the largest professional astronomy and space science event in the UK for a decade and will see leading researchers from around the world presenting their latest work.

EWASS 2018 is a joint meeting of the European Astronomical Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. It incorporates the RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM), and includes the annual meeting of the UK Solar Physics (UKSP) group. The conference is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU).

About Durham University

  • A world top 100 university with a global reputation and performance in research and education (QS 2018 and THE World University Rankings 2018)
  • Ranked fourth in the UK in the Guardian University Guide 2018 and fifth in the 2018 Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide.
  • A member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive UK universities.
  • Research at Durham shapes local, national and international agendas, and directly informs the teaching of our students.
  • Ranked the world top 40 globally for the employability of its students by blue-chip companies world-wide (QS World University Rankings 2017/18).
  • Highest rate of employment and further study in the UK for undergraduates completing their first degree (Higher Education Statistics Agency 2017/18).

Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) is one of the largest, most dynamic and forward-thinking universities in the UK, with a vibrant community of 25,000 students from over 100 countries world-wide, 2,500 staff and 250 degree courses. LJMU celebrated its 25th anniversary of becoming a university in 2017 and has launched a new five-year vision built around four key 'pillars' to deliver excellence in education; impactful research and scholarship; enhanced civic and global engagement; and an outstanding student experience.

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