Dark Matter

Roughly 80 percent of the mass of the universe is made up of material that scientists cannot directly observe. Known as dark matter, this bizarre ingredient does not emit light or energy. So why do scientists think it dominates?


Photo : NASA


Studies of other galaxies in the 1950s first indicated that the universe contained more matter than seen by the naked eye. Support for dark matter has grown, and although no solid direct evidence of dark matter has been detected, there have been strong possibilities in recent years.

Dark matter is a hypothetical kind of matter that cannot be seen with telescopes but accounts for most of the matter in the universe. The existence and properties of dark matter are inferred from its gravitational effects on visible matter, on radiation, and on the large-scale structure of the universe. Dark matter has not been detected directly, making it one of the greatest mysteries in modern astrophysics.

Dark matter neither emits nor absorbs light or any other electromagnetic radiation at any significant level. According to the Planck mission team, and based on the standard model of cosmology, the total mass–energy of the known universe contains 4.9%ordinary (baryonic) matter, 26.8% dark matter and 68.3% dark energy. Thus, dark matter is estimated to constitute 84.5% of the total matter in the universe, while dark energy plus dark matter constitute 95.1% of the total mass–energy content of the universe.

Astrophysicists hypothesized the existence of dark matter to account for discrepancies between the mass of large astronomical objects determined from their gravitational effects, and their mass as calculated from the observable matter (stars, gas, and dust) that they can be seen to contain. Their gravitational effects suggest that their masses are much greater than the observable matter survey suggests.

Dark matter was postulated by Jan Oort in 1932, albeit based upon insufficient evidence, to account for the orbital velocities of stars in the Milky Way. In 1933, Fritz Zwicky was the first to use the virial theorem to infer the existence of unseen matter, which he referred to as dunkle Materie ‘dark matter’.More robust evidence from galaxy rotation curves was discovered by Horace W. Babcock in 1939, but was not attributed to dark matter. The first hypothesis to postulate “dark matter” based upon robust evidence was formulated by Vera Rubin and Kent Ford in the 1960s–1970s, using galaxy rotation curves. Subsequently, many other observations have indicated the presence of dark matter in the universe, including gravitational lensing of background objects by galaxy clusters such as the Bullet Cluster, the temperature distribution of hot gas in galaxies and clusters of galaxies and, more recently, the pattern of anisotropies in the cosmic microwave background. According to consensus among cosmologists, dark matter is composed primarily of a not yet characterized type of subatomic particle. The search for this particle, by a variety of means, is one of the major efforts in particle physics today.

If scientists can’t see dark matter, how do they know it exists?

Scientists calculate the mass of large objects in space by studying their motion. Astronomers examining spiral galaxies in the 1950s expected to see material in the center moving faster than on the outer edges. Instead, they found the stars in both locations traveled at the same velocity, indicating the galaxies contained more mass than could be seen. Studies of the gas within elliptical galaxies also indicated a need for more mass than found in visible objects. Clusters of galaxies would fly apart if the only mass they contained were visible to conventional astronomical measurements.

Albert Einstein showed that massive objects in the universe bend and distort light, allowing them to be used as lenses. By studying how light is distorted by galaxy clusters, astronomers have been able to create a map of dark matter in the universe.

All of these methods provide a strong indication that the most of the matter in the universe is something yet unseen.

Although dark matter makes up most of the matter of the universe, it only makes up about a quarter of the composition. The universe is dominated by dark energy.

After the Big Bang, the universe began expanding outward. Scientists once thought that it would eventually run out of the energy, slowing down as gravity pulled the objects inside it together. But studies of distant supernovae revealed that the universe today is expanding faster than it was in the past, not slower, indicating that the expansion is accelerating. This would only be possible if the universe contained enough energy to overcome gravity — dark energy.