Monthly Archives: October 2014

Milky Way Dark Matter Halo Loses ‘Weight’

640px-Milky_Way_ArchMilky Way Arch, CC BY 3.0Bruno Gilli/ESO

Mass estimates for our Milky Way vary widely, from less than 1 trillion, to as high as 4 trillion, times the mass of the Sun.

A recent paper by a group of astronomers in Australia argues for a mass that is very much at the low end of this range. Prajawal Kafle and collaborators present a kinematic analysis and build a model of the Milky Way that incorporates a disk, a bulge, and a dark matter halo. The analysis utilizes K giant and horizontal branch star catalogs.

The disk component – in which our Sun resides – contains stars and gas and active star formation from this gas. The spheroidal bulge contains the oldest stellar population of the galaxy, including globular clusters. The spherical halo, significantly larger and more massive than both the other components, is dominated by dark matter. It is chiefly responsible for the overall gravitational potential of the Milky Way, and is evidenced by the high rotational velocity of our galaxy in its outer regions.

The result of their analysis is that the dark matter halo “weighs in” at about 800 billion solar masses, the disk is about 100 billion solar masses, and the bulge is only about 10 billion solar masses. They also find a dark matter density in the solar neighborhood equivalent to about 1/3 of a proton per cubic centimeter, consistent with other estimates. (This number is important for calibrating Earth-bound direct detection experiments for dark matter.)

The relatively low mass they determine for the dark matter halo implies fewer satellite galaxies in close proximity to the Milky Way. We see only 3, the two Magellanic Clouds and the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy. In the past this has been seen as an issue for the favored Lambda – Cold Dark Matter (ΛCDM) Cosmology.

However their lower halo mass is actually consistent with the Milky Way gathering only 3 so-called sub-halos (satellite galaxies) and thus there may be no Missing Satellite Problem with ΛCDM. Some had suggested warm dark matter, rather than cold dark matter, may be necessary because of the putative missing satellite problem, but this may not be the case, with a lighter Milky Way dark matter halo.

Another team, Penarrubia and collaborators, has recently modeled the dynamics of the Local Group of galaxies. They are thus using a different methodology to determine the total mass of the Milky Way. They find a total mass for the Local Group of 2.3 trillion solar masses. The Local Group mass is almost entirely due to the Andromeda Galaxy and our Milky Way. They also determine a Milky Way to Amdromeda mass ratio of about 1/2. This implies a mass of about 0.8 trillion solar masses for our Milky Way, consistent with the Australian team’s result.

These two latest measurements of the Milky Way mass seem to indicate that the total mass of the Milky Way galaxy is less than 1 trillion solar masses. And these two results thus suggest that the ΛCDM cosmology is in fact consistent with the small number of satellite galaxies around our Milky Way. Another success for ΛCDM, it seems.

References: – P. Kafle et al. 2014, “On the shoulders of giants: Properties of the stellar halo and Milky Way mass distribution”

J. Penarrubia et al. 2014, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 443, 2204, “A dynamical model of the local cosmic expansion”