It Starts with a Bang

A purple haze shows dark matter flanking the “Bullet Cluster.” Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/M.Markevitch et al. Optical: NASA/STScI; Magellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al. Lensing Map: NASA/STScI; ESO WFI; Magellan/U.Arizona/D.Clowe et al

See also: Dark Energy

Galaxy clusters and gravitational lensing

Strong gravitational lensing as observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in Abell 1689 indicates the presence of dark matter—enlarge the image to see the lensing arcs.

A gravitational lens is formed when the light from a very distant, bright source (such as a quasar) is “bent” around a massive object (such as a cluster of galaxies) between the source object and the observer. The process is known as gravitational lensing.

Dark matter affects galaxy clusters as well. X-ray measurements of hot intracluster gas correspond closely to Zwicky’s observations of mass-to-light ratios for large clusters of nearly 10 to 1. Many of the experiments of the Chandra X-ray Observatory use this technique to independently determine the mass of clusters.[32]

The galaxy cluster Abell 2029 is composed of thousands of galaxies enveloped in a cloud of hot gas, and an amount of dark matter equivalent to more than 1014 Suns. At the center of this cluster is an enormous, elliptically shaped galaxy that is thought to have been formed from the mergers of many smaller galaxies.[33] The measured orbital velocities of galaxies within galactic clusters have been found to be consistent with dark matter observations.

Another important tool for future dark matter observations is gravitational lensing. Lensing relies on the effects of general relativity to predict masses without relying on dynamics, and so is a completely independent means of measuring the dark matter. Strong lensing, the observed distortion of background galaxies into arcs when the light passes through a gravitational lens, has been observed around a few distant clusters including Abell 1689 (pictured right).[34] By measuring the distortion geometry, the mass of the cluster causing the phenomena can be obtained. In the dozens of cases where this has been done, the mass-to-light ratios obtained correspond to the dynamical dark matter measurements of clusters.[35]

A technique has been developed over the last 10 years called weak gravitational lensing, which looks at minute distortions of galaxies observed in vast galaxy surveys due to foreground objects through statistical analyses. By examining the apparent shear deformation of the adjacent background galaxies, astrophysicists can characterize the mean distribution of dark matter by statistical means and have found mass-to-light ratios that correspond to dark matter densities predicted by other large-scale structure measurements.[36] The correspondence of the two gravitational lens techniques to other dark matter measurements has convinced almost all astrophysicists that dark matter actually exists as a major component of the universe’s composition.

The Bullet Cluster: HST image with overlays. The total projected mass distribution reconstructed from strong and weak gravitational lensing is shown in blue, while the X-ray emitting hot gas observed with Chandra is shown in red.

The most direct observational evidence to date for dark matter is in a system known as the Bullet Cluster. In most regions of the universe, dark matter and visible material are found together,[37] as expected because of their mutual gravitational attraction. In the Bullet Cluster, a collision between two galaxy clusters appears to have caused a separation of dark matter and baryonic matter. X-ray observations show that much of the baryonic matter (in the form of 107–108 Kelvin[38] gas, or plasma) in the system is concentrated in the center of the system. Electromagnetic interactions between passing gas particles caused them to slow down and settle near the point of impact. However, weak gravitational lensing observations of the same system show that much of the mass resides outside of the central region of baryonic gas. Because dark matter does not interact by electromagnetic forces, it would not have been slowed in the same way as the X-ray visible gas, so the dark matter components of the two clusters passed through each other without slowing down substantially. This accounts for the separation. Unlike the galactic rotation curves, this evidence for dark matter is independent of the details of Newtonian gravity, so it is claimed to be direct evidence of the existence of dark matter.[38] Another galaxy cluster, known as the Train Wreck Cluster/Abell 520, appears to have an unusually massive and dark core containing few of the cluster’s galaxies, which presents problems for standard dark matter models.[39]

This may be explained by the dark core actually being a long, low-density dark matter filament (containing few galaxies) along the line of sight, projected onto the cluster core.[40]
The observed behavior of dark matter in clusters constrains whether and how much dark matter scatters off other dark matter particles, quantified as its self-interaction cross section. More simply, the question is whether the dark matter has pressure, and thus can be described as a perfect fluid.[41] The distribution of mass (and thus dark matter) in galaxy clusters has been used to argue both for[42] and against[43] the existence of significant self-interaction in dark matter. Specifically, the distribution of dark matter in merging clusters such as the Bullet Cluster shows that dark matter scatters off other dark matter particles only very weakly if at all.[44]

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