Topics: Dark Matter, Dark Energy

Dark Matter, Dark Energy

Dark Energy, Dark Matter


In the early 1990's, one thing was fairly certain about the expansion of the Universe. It might have enough energy density to stop its expansion and recollapse, it might have so little energy density that it would never stop expanding, but gravity was certain to slow the expansion as time went on. Granted, the slowing had not been observed, but, theoretically, the Universe had to slow. The Universe is full of matter and the attractive force of gravity pulls all matter together. Then came 1998 and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) observations of very distant supernovae that showed that, a long time ago, the Universe was actually expanding more slowly than it is today. So the expansion of the Universe has not been slowing due to gravity, as everyone thought, it has been accelerating. No one expected this, no one knew how to explain it. But something was causing it.

Eventually theorists came up with three sorts of explanations. Maybe it was a result of a long-discarded version of Einstein's theory of gravity, one that contained what was called a "cosmological constant." Maybe there was some strange kind of energy-fluid that filled space. Maybe there is something wrong with Einstein's theory of gravity and a new theory could include some kind of field that creates this cosmic acceleration. Theorists still don't know what the correct explanation is, but they have given the solution a name. It is called dark energy.

What Is Dark Energy?

More is unknown than is known. We know how much dark energy there is because we know how it affects the Universe's expansion. Other than that, it is a complete mystery. But it is an important mystery. It turns out that roughly 70% of the Universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 25%. The rest - everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter - adds up to less than 5% of the Universe. Come to think of it, maybe it shouldn't be called "normal" matter at all, since it is such a small fraction of the Universe.

One explanation for dark energy is that it is a property of space. Albert Einstein was the first person to realize that empty space is not nothing. Space has amazing properties, many of which are just beginning to be understood. The first property that Einstein discovered is that it is possible for more space to come into existence. Then one version of Einstein's gravity theory, the version that contains a cosmological constant, makes a second prediction: "empty space" can possess its own energy. Because this energy is a property of space itself, it would not be diluted as space expands. As more space comes into existence, more of this energy-of-space would appear. As a result, this form of energy would cause the Universe to expand faster and faster. Unfortunately, no one understands why the cosmological constant should even be there, much less why it would have exactly the right value to cause the observed acceleration of the Universe. Another explanation for how space acquires energy comes from the quantum theory of matter. In this theory, "empty space" is actually full of temporary ("virtual") particles that continually form and then disappear. But when physicists tried to calculate how much energy this would give empty space, the answer came out wrong - wrong by a lot. The number came out 10120 times too big. That's a 1 with 120 zeros after it. It's hard to get an answer that bad. So the mystery continues.

Another explanation for dark energy is that it is a new kind of dynamical energy fluid or field, something that fills all of space but something whose effect on the expansion of the Universe is the opposite of that of matter and normal energy. Some theorists have named this "quintessence," after the fifth element of the Greek philosophers. But, if quintessence is the answer, we still don't know what it is like, what it interacts with, or why it exists. So the mystery continues.

A last possibility is that Einstein's theory of gravity is not correct. That would not only affect the expansion of the Universe, but it would also affect the way that normal matter in galaxies and clusters of galaxies behaved. This fact would provide a way to decide if the solution to the dark energy problem is a new gravity theory or not: we could observe how galaxies come together in clusters. But if it does turn out that a new theory of gravity is needed, what kind of theory would it be? How could it correctly describe the motion of the bodies in the Solar System, as Einstein's theory is known to do, and still give us the different prediction for the Universe that we need? There are candidate theories, but none are compelling. So the mystery continues.

The thing that is needed to decide between dark energy possibilities - a property of space, a new dynamic fluid, or a new theory of gravity - is more data, better data. The Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM) is a NASA mission in the planning stages, being developed jointly by NASA and the Department of Energy. Its goal will be to provide observations of the Universe that will allow theorists to discriminate between theories and, perhaps, finally lead to the solution of the mystery.

What Is Dark Matter?

By fitting a theoretical model of the composition of the Universe to the combined set of cosmological observations, scientists have come up with the composition that we described above, ~70% dark energy, ~25% dark matter, ~5% normal matter. What is dark matter?

We are much more certain what dark matter is not than we are what it is. First, it is dark, meaning that it is not in the form of stars and planets that we see. Observations show that there is far too little visible matter in the Universe to make up the 25% required by the observations. Second, it is not in the form of dark clouds of normal matter, matter made up of particles called baryons. We know this because we would be able to detect baryonic clouds by their absorption of radiation passing through them. Third, dark matter is not antimatter, because we do not see the unique gamma rays that are produced when antimatter annihilates with matter. Finally, we can rule out large galaxy-sized black holes on the basis of how many gravitational lenses we see. High concentrations of matter bend light passing near them from objects further away, but we do not see enough lensing events to suggest that such objects to make up the required 25% dark matter contribution.

However, at this point, there are still a few dark matter possibilities that are viable. Baryonic matter could still make up the dark matter if it were all tied up in brown dwarfs or in small, dense chunks of heavy elements. These possibilities are known as massive compact halo objects, or "MACHOs". But the most common view is that dark matter is not baryonic at all, but that it is made up of other, more exotic particles like axions or WIMPS (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles).



When the Universe was young, it was nearly smooth and featureless. As it grew older and developed, it became organized. We know that our solar system is organized into planets (including the Earth!) orbiting around the Sun. On a scale much larger than the solar system (about 100 million times larger!), stars collect themselves into galaxies. Our Sun is an average star in an average galaxy called the Milky Way. The Milky Way contains about 100 billion stars. Yes, that's 100,000,000,000 stars! On still larger scales, individual galaxies are concentrated into groups, or what astronomers call clusters of galaxies.

The cluster includes the galaxies and any material which is in the space between the galaxies. The force, or glue, that holds the cluster together is gravity -- the mutual attraction of everything in the Universe for everything else. The space between galaxies in clusters is filled with a hot gas. In fact, the gas is so hot (tens of millions of degrees!) that it shines in X-rays instead of visible light. In the image above, the hot X-ray gas (shown in pink) lying between the galaxies is superimposed on an an optical picture of the cluster of galaxies. By studying the distribution and temperature of the hot gas we can measure how much it is being squeezed by the force of gravity from all the material in the cluster. This allows scientists to determine how much total material (matter) there is in that part of space.

Remarkably, it turns out there is five times more material in clusters of galaxies than we would expect from the galaxies and hot gas we can see. Most of the stuff in clusters of galaxies is invisible and, since these are the largest structures in the Universe held together by gravity, scientists then conclude that most of the matter in the entire Universe is invisible. This invisible stuff is called 'dark matter'. There is currently much ongoing research by scientists attempting to discover exactly what this dark matter is, how much there is, and what effect it may have on the future of the Universe as a whole.

It's Dark Out There....

"Dark matter" refers matter of an unknown type that astronomers and cosmologists believe must make up the majority of the mass in the universe. It is called "dark" because it does not emit any light. We know of its presence because of the gravitational effects it has on objects that we can see. For example, galaxies in clusters move at speeds that are too high to be attributed just to the visible galaxies. In addition, astronomers measure high temperature gas in these galaxy clusters. This gas is at too high a temperature to remain bound to the cluster without some additional, hidden, mass. For galaxies and groups, the X-ray data have often indicated very extended dark matter halos far beyond the radius at which one sees starlight or galaxies. The total inferred dark matter mass is often 10 times that in the "visible" galaxies alone.

Dark matter also plays a role in the early universe. Astronomers theorize that the presence of dark matter helps to explain the relative amounts of light elements and isotopes produced in the Big Bang. Results from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) show that 23% of the Universe is made up of dark matter.

One of the best ways of determining the mass of a system, such as a cluster of galaxies, group of galaxies or a massive elliptical galaxy, is to measure the X-ray temperature and gas profiles. Astronomers start by assuming the gas is in equilibrium, which is borne out by the thermal spectra of the gas. Matching models of the distribution and temperature of the gas to the X-ray observations gives the mass of the gas. Use of this technique has shown that clusters of galaxies are gas and baryon rich, that is, the mass in gas exceeds the mass in stars by factors of 3-5 and that the total baryonic mass is ~15% of the total mass of the cluster (i.e. visible mass plus dark matter). Since clusters are supposed to be "fair samples of the universe" they should have a baryon fraction that corresponds to 4%, as inferred from Big Bang nucleosynthesis and results from WMAP. However, WMAP and other evidence now point to a new component in the universe, which is called dark energy. Dark energy makes up 73% of the energy and matter of the universe. By including this dark energy with the visible mass and dark matter, we find that clusters really do share in the same baryonic fraction as the rest of the universe.


We believe that most of the matter in the universe is dark, i.e. cannot be detected from the light which it emits (or fails to emit). This is "stuff" which cannot be seen directly -- so what makes us think that it exists at all? Its presence is inferred indirectly from the motions of astronomical objects, specifically stellar, galactic, and galaxy cluster/supercluster observations. It is also required in order to enable gravity to amplify the small fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background enough to form the large-scale structures that we see in the universe today.

Dark matter Not dark matter

For each of the stellar, galactic, and galaxy cluster/supercluster observations the basic principle is that if we measure velocities in some region, then there has to be enough mass there for gravity to stop all the objects flying apart. When such velocity measurements are done on large scales, it turns out that the amount of inferred mass is much more than can be explained by the luminous stuff. Hence we infer that there is dark matter in the Universe.

Dark matter has important consequences for the evolution of the Universe and the structure within it. According to general relativity, the Universe must conform to one of three possible types: open, flat, or closed. The total amount of mass and energy in the universe determines which of the three possibilities applies to the Universe. In the case of an open Universe, the total mass and energy density (denoted by the greek letter Omega) is less than unity. If the Universe is closed, Omega is greater than unity. For the case where Omega is exactly equal to one the Universe is "flat".

Note that the dynamics of the Universe are not determined entirely by the geometry (open, closed or flat) unless the Universe contains only matter. In our Universe, where most of Omega comes from dark energy, this relation between the mass density, spatial curvature and the future of the universe no longer holds. It is then no longer true in this case that "geometry (spatial curvature) is destiny." Instead, to find out what will happen one needs to calculate the evolution of the expansion factor of the universe for the specific case of matter density, spatial curvature and "funny energy" to find out what will happen.

Dark matter (DM) candidates are usually split into two broad categories, with the second category being further sub-divided:

* Baryonic

* Non-Baryonic

o hot dark matter (HDM) and

o cold dark matter (CDM),

depending on their respective masses and speeds. CDM candidates travel at slow speeds (hence "cold") or have little pressure, while HDM candidates move rapidly (hence "hot").

Aside on flatness

Current indications from the cosmic microwave background are that the universe is spatially flat. That implies that the sum of all of the energy (density) in the universe equals the critical density, i.e. the total Omega is 1. This is quite interesting because as the Universe expands the value of Omega changes. In fact the value 1 is unstable, and the Universe would prefer to evolve towards one of the two natural values: 0, if the expands forever further apart until the Universe is almost totally empty ; and infinity, if the matter recollapses to a state of higher and higher density. Then the observation that Omega is fairly close to 1 today, means that it must have been even closer to 1 in the past. It is unsatisfying to believe that we just happen to live at the time when Omega is just starting to depart from 1 by a small factor. It is much more appealing to consider that we do not live at a special epoch, so that Omega is still close to 1 today. But then we need to explain why Omega started out very close to 1 in the early universe. The theory of inflation provides just such a justification - most versions of inflation predict that the early Universe was driven extremely close to flat, and that it is still very close to flat today. If this is so, then at least 90% the energy of the Universe is dark! Note that although the universe may be flat, that does not mean that matter makes up the critical density. In addition to dark matter there is dark energy, e.g. a cosmological constant, that needs to be included in the accounting.




The discovery in 1998 that the Universe is actually speeding up its expansion was a total shock to astronomers. It just seems so counter-intuitive, so against common sense. But the evidence has become convincing.

The evidence came from studying distant type Ia supernovae. This type of supernova results from a white dwarf star in binary system. Matter transfers from the normal star to the white dwarf until the white dwarf attains a critical mass (the Chandrasekhar limit) and undergoes a thermonuclear explosion. Because all white dwarfs achieve the same mass before exploding, they all achieve the same luminosity and can be used by astronomers as "standard candles." Thus by observing their apparent brightness, astronomers can determine their distance using the 1/r2 law.

By knowing the distance to the supernova, we know how long ago it occurred. In addition, the light from the supernova has been red-shifted by the expansion of the universe. By measuring this redshift from the spectrum of the supernova, astronomers can determine how much the universe has expanded since the explosion. By studying many supernovae at different distances, astronomers can piece together a history of the expansion of the universe.

In the 1990's two teams of astronomers, the Supernova Cosmology Project and the High-Z Supernova Search, were looking for distant type Ia supernovae in order to measure the expansion rate of the universe with time. They expected that the expansion would be slowing, which would be indicated by the supernovae being brighter than their redshifts would indicate. Instead, they found the supernovae to be fainter than expected. Hence, the expansion of the universe was accelerating!

In addition, measurements of the cosmic microwave background indicate that the universe has a flat geometry on large scales. Because there is not enough matter in the universe - either ordinary or dark matter - to produce this flatness, the difference must be attributed to a "dark energy". This same dark energy causes the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. In addition, the effect of dark energy seems to vary, with the expansion of the Universe slowing down and speeding up over different times.

Astronomers know dark matter is there by its gravitational effect on the matter that we see and there are ideas about the kinds of particles it must be made of. By contrast, dark energy remains a complete mystery. The name "dark energy" refers to the fact that some kind of "stuff" must fill the vast reaches of mostly empty space in the Universe in order to be able to make space accelerate in its expansion. In this sense, it is a "field" just like an electric field or a magnetic field, both of which are produced by electromagnetic energy. But this analogy can only be taken so far because we can readily observe electromagnetic energy via the particle that carries it, the photon.

Some astronomers identify dark energy with Einstein's Cosmological Constant. Einstein introduced this constant into his general relativity when he saw that his theory was predicting an expanding universe, which was contrary to the evidence for a static universe that he and other physicists had in the early 20th century. This constant balanced the expansion and made the universe static. With Edwin Hubble's discovery of the expansion of the Universe, Einstein dismissed his constant. It later became identified with what quantum theory calls the energy of the vacuum.

In the context of dark energy, the cosmological constant is a reservoir which stores energy. Its energy scales as the universe expands. Applied to the supernova data, it would distinguish effects due to the matter in the universe from those due to the dark energy. Unfortunately, the amount of this stored energy required is far more than observed, and would result in very rapid acceleration (so much so that the stars and galaxies would not form). Physicists have suggested a new type of matter, "quintessence," which would fill the universe like a fluid which has a negative gravitational mass. However, new constraints imposed on cosmological parameters by Hubble Space Telescope data rule out at least simple models of quintessence.

Other possibilities being explored are topological defects, time varying forms of dark energy, or a dark energy that does not scale uniformly with the expansion of the universe


Dark Matter, Dark Energy
Most of the universe seems to consist of nothing we can see. Dark energy and dark matter, detectable only because of their effect on the visible matter around them, make up most of the universe. Source: