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Scientists have used the oldest light in the universe to capture an unprecedented glimpse into the distribution of dark matter, an unexplained substance that accounts for most of the mass in the universe, around galaxies, according to a new study.
While previous observations had pinpointed the patterns of dark matter in the galaxy 10 billion years ago, the new findings push those boundaries as far back as 12 billion years ago. The achievement reveals potential challenges to the Standard Model of cosmology, a well-supported framework that explains many of the strange phenomena observed in space.
Scientists led by Hironao Miyatake, a cosmologist at Nagoya University, have obtained the “first discovery of the distribution of dark matter” around galaxies during this early era of the universe, which “opens a new window for constraining cosmological parameters,” according to the Study published on Monday in the magazine physical review messages.
The team was able to achieve this breakthrough with the help of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the oldest observable light in the universe, which was created by residual heat from the Big Bang.
“Look at the dark matter around distant galaxies?” Masami Oshi, a cosmologist at the University of Tokyo and co-author of the study, said: in the current situation. It was a crazy idea. Nobody realized that we could do this. But after I gave a talk about a large, distant galaxy sample, Hironao came to me and said that it might be possible to look at the dark matter around these galaxies using the CMB.”
Dark matter is one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in science, in part because this exotic matter does not emit detectable light. Scientists only know that dark matter exists because of its apparent gravitational effect on “ordinary” visible matter, such as the things that make up stars, planets, and our bodies. If scientists are able to determine the nature of dark matter, it will fill a huge gap in our knowledge of the universe that could shed light on a host of other questions, such as the fundamental composition of the universe and the evolution of galaxies like our Milky Way.
Dark matter is not evenly distributed throughout the universe, and its masses usually correspond to massive objects made of ordinary matter such as galaxies. One way to understand how the distribution of dark matter evolves over time, and thus how it affects ordinary matter, is to use exotic natural telescopes known as gravitational lenses.
These lenses are created when massive objects, such as galaxy clusters, are in front of objects farther from our perspective on Earth. The gravitational fields of these foreground objects distort the light from the background objects in a way that can be magnified hundreds of times, allowing scientists to look into far corners of the universe that might otherwise be out of view.
These cosmic lenses helped researchers map the distribution of dark matter nearly ten billion years ago, but now Miyatake and his colleagues have devised a new technique that reaches even further. The team used the Subaru Hyper Suprime-Cam Survey, an astronomical project atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, to discover 1.5 million massive lenticular galaxies that existed 12 billion years ago. The researchers then combined these images with CMB observations taken by the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite.
This approach revealed the micro-lensing distortions of the microwaves that make up this ancient light, allowing Miyataki and his colleagues to plot the main dark matter patterns in the universe earlier than ever before. In addition to pushing these limits of observation, the results point to a slightly different value for a major cosmological scale — essentially, the agglomeration of matter — compared to the standard model of cosmology. If this gap between observation and theory remains constant in future studies, it may pose a challenge to the model that may require the emergence of new physics.
“What we have found is still uncertain,” Miyatake said in the statement. “But if true, it suggests that the entire model is flawed and you go back in time. This is exciting because if the result persists after uncertainties are reduced, it could indicate an improvement to the model that may provide insight into the nature of dark matter itself.”
“I was glad that we opened a new window on that era,” he concluded.