Monthly Archives: July 2015

Galaxy Formation in an Expanding Universe: Dark Matter Halos and Supermassive Black Holes

This blog is based on a recent talk on the Horizon supercomputer simulation for galaxy formation. The talk (in English) was given at the Ecole Normale Superieure by Julien Devrient, of the University of Oxford, available on YouTube here:

The background for the simulation of galaxy formation on supercomputers is the standard Lambda-Cold Dark Matter cosmology with 4.8% ordinary matter, 26.8% dark matter and 68.4% dark energy, which are the measured values from the Planck satellite and other observations. These are the proportions at present, but until the last few billion years, dark matter was dominant over dark energy. The ratio of dark matter to ordinary matter has stayed essentially fixed since the universe was 1 second old, with about 5 times or so as much dark matter as ordinary matter.

The collisionless components to consider are cold dark matter (CDM) and stars, as the stars form inside the simulation.

Then there is a collisional fluid composed of gas, in both atomic (neutral and ionized) and molecular forms and consisting primarily of hydrogen, helium and a small amount, up to around 1% by mass, of heavy elements including carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, iron and so forth. This fraction increases during the history of the universe as star formation and evolution proceeds. This ‘primordial’ gas is heated by falling into the gravitational potential determined primarily by the CDM (but also by the ordinary matter) and it cools via various radiative processes that depend on density, temperature and composition.

There are many complicating factors and feedback processes. This is an extremely messy problem to address. Dust, supernovae, turbulent gas dynamics, magnetic fields, and black holes that merge and grow into supermassive black holes (SMBH) are all things to consider. The SMBH are surrounded by accretion disks and also may emit jets and these components are visible as highly luminous AGN (active galactic nuclei). Not all of these can be included in simulations at present, or they are treated empirically.

Although the physics is well understood for the collisionless component behavior and for the atomic and molecular gas, including the cooling (radiative) functions, the modeling must occur over many, many orders of magnitude, since scales range from less than 1 parsec to 100s of Megaparsecs (a million parsecs, where 1 parsec = 3.26 light-years). This huge range in scale, plus complex physics, makes the calculation extremely computationally expensive.

The Horizon simulation had 7 billion grid cells and 1 billion dark matter particles. The highest resolution is down to 1 kiloparsec. Gas cooling, star formation, stellar winds, two types of supernovae are included and the abundances of C, N, O, Si, Mg, and Fe tracked. Black hole formation was included. Two million CPU core hours were required for the simulation.

MultiScaleProblemFigure 1. The multi-scale problem

Many scales are involved in simulating galaxy formation – 11 or 12 orders of magnitude. Each tick mark in the above Figure 1 is 3 orders of magnitude (a factor of 1000) in linear scale. From the largest to the smallest objects (moving from right to left) we have LSS = large-scale structure: the universe has evolved into a web-like structure with filaments and sheets of galaxies and high-density and low-density regions. The scale is 100s of Megaparsecs to more than a Gigaparsec. Below this are the galaxy clusters, which are the largest gravitationally bound structures, at around 1 Megaparsec, and then galaxies which are found primarily in the 1 kiloparsec to 100 kiloparsec range.

Then within galaxies, star formation happens within molecular clouds and the scales are parsecs to 100s of parsecs. At the smallest scale, we have highly energetic active galactic nuclei (AGN), that are powered by SMBH (supermassive black holes), with millions to billions of solar masses, and have surrounding accretion disks, confined within a very small region of order 1/1000 of a parsec, reaching down towards the scale of our solar system.

multiscaleproblem.part2Figure 2. The Dark Matter Halo mass function and the galaxy mass function

It is impossible with current supercomputers and techniques to directly model across all these scales, but the Horizon-AGN Simulation, one of the largest galaxy formation simulations today, spans around 5 orders of magnitude by using adaptive mesh refinement strategies. When and where the density of matter is high and the physics is interesting, an increasingly finer mesh is employed for the calculations. Without this method, it would be impossible to make progress.

Galaxies are formed within the gravitational potentials of dark matter halos (DMH). There is about 5 times as much mass in dark matter as in ordinary matter (baryons, e.g. protons and neutrons). So the ordinary matter falls into the gravitational potentials of DMH, is heated up, and cools by radiation which allows for further collapse, and so on until galaxies are formed.

The interesting scales for DMH are from about 100 billion to 1000 trillion solar masses. The size distribution for the density perturbations that self-collapse under their own gravity follows a power law (with an index of close to -1 in the inverse linear scale). This comes from the cosmic microwave background measurements and inflationary Big Bang theory. How these density perturbations evolve and collapse to DMH is now a well-studied problem in cosmology.

One might assume that each DMH results in a single galaxy, and in the mid-range, this matches observations fairly well. But at the low-end and the high-end, this simple model breaks down, when comparison is made to the observed galaxy mass function (which is simply a measurement of how many galaxies we see per unit volume with a given mass).

At the low end we see fewer galaxies than expected. These are very faint however more and more dwarf galaxies with low luminosity yet with significant mass dominated by dark matter are being detected, and this is helping to resolve this issue. An important factor is most likely feedback from supernovae. As supernovae explode they produce blast waves which drive gas out and prevent molecular cloud formation and star formation.

Supernova physics is tricky as it can result in gas compression which enhances the star formation rate but also can drive gas out of a galaxy, partcularly if it is smaller and has a lower gravitational field, and this suppresses star formation.

In the left panel of Figure 2 above, the first black line is the DMH mass function, and the second black line is just shifted to the left by the baryon to dark matter ratio. What is being plotted is the frequency of galaxies expected for a given mass.  The actual observed curve for galaxy stellar masses is in red, and one sees fewer galaxies at the low end and especially at the very high end. The right panel shows the observational data which is replotted as the red line in the left panel.

At the high end of the mass function there are fewer galaxies with a rapid cutoff around 1 to 10 trillion solar masses for baryon content, which is about an order of magnitude lower than the DMH  mass function would suggest. At the high end it is believed that feedback from AGN (SMBH) is the cause of inhibited star formation, placing a limit on the maximum size of an individual galaxy. Of course multiple galaxies may form out of a single halo as well.

horizonagnFigure 3. The Horizon simulation without and with Active Galactic Nuclei included

The upper panel on the right in Figure 3 is the simulation without AGN, the lower one with AGN. The simulation including AGN is a better fit to observed galaxy properties.

The simulation had 7 billion grid cells and 1 billion dark matter particles. The highest resolution is down to 1 kiloparsec. Gas cooling, star formation, stellar winds, two types of supernovae are included and the abundances of C, N, O, Si, Mg, and Fe tracked. Black hole formation was included. Two million CPU core hours were required for the simulation.

Including modeling of AGN, the larger galaxies in the simulation are less massive and dimmer, and are more likely to be ellipticals than spiral galaxies. The high mass galaxies in the center of clusters are generally observed to be ellipticals, so this is a desired result.

There is much room for refining and improving galaxy simulation work, including adding additional physics and more small-scale resolution to the models. I encourage you to look at the YouTube video, there are many other interesting results discussed by Prof. Devrient from the Horizon-AGN simulation work.

References: – Prof. Devrient’s talk – Horizon simulation home page


Black Holes Destroy Dark Matter (and Emit Gamma Rays)

Black holes can cause dark matter to annihilate in their vicinity by concentrating the dark matter and enhancing the collision rate between dark matter particles. The best observational candidates are supermassive black holes, such as the 4 million solar mass black hole found at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Some galaxies have much larger supermassive black holes, reaching as high as several billion or even tens of billions of solar masses. Most massive galaxies appear to have supermassive black holes in their centers.

Artist's conception of a supermassive black hole (public domain; courtesy NASA JPL)

Artist’s conception of a supermassive black hole (public domain; courtesy NASA JPL)

We infer the existence of supermassive black holes through their effect on nearby stellar or molecular cloud orbits. And we more directly detect supermassive black holes (SMBHs) by the radiation emitted from ordinary matter that is near the black hole (BH), but has not yet fallen into the BH’s event horizon (from which nothing, not even light, can escape). Such matter will often form a hot accretion disk around the SMBH. The disk or other infalling matter can be heated to millions of degrees by the strong gravitational potential of the BH as the kinetic energy of infall is converted to thermal energy by frictional processes. Ordinary matter (OM) heated to such high temperatures will give off X-rays.

Now if OM is being pulled into a SMBH, so is dark matter, which pervades every galaxy. Dark matter (DM) responds to the same gravitational potential from the SMBH. The difference is that OM is collisional since it easily interacts with other OM via the electromagnetic force, whereas DM is generally collisionless, since it does not interact via electromagnetism.

Nevertheless DM – DM collisions can occur, rarely, via a ‘direct hit’ (as if two bullets hit each other in mid-air) and this leads to annihilation. Two DM particles meet directly and their entire energy content, from their rest mass as well as their kinetic energy of motion, is converted into other particles. The cross-section strength is not known, but it must be small due to observational limits, yet is expected to be non-zero. The most likely candidates for decay products are expected to be photons, neutrinos, and electrons.

The leading candidate for DM is some sort of weakly interacting massive particle with a mass of perhaps 5 to 300 GeV; this is the range where DM searches from satellites and on Earth are focused. (The proton mass is a little less than 1 GeV = billion electron Volts.) So if two DM particles mutually annihilate, there is of order 10 GeV to 600 GeV of available rest mass energy to produce highly energetic gamma rays.

The likelihood of a direct hit is proportional to the square of the density of the DM. A SMBH’s gravitational potential acts as a concentrator for DM, allowing the density to be high enough that there could be a significant number of annihilation events, resulting in a detectable flux of escaping photons reaching Earth. Relativistic effects work to further increase the annihilation rate. And it is possible that the annihilation signal could scale as M³ (mass of the SMBH cubed), and thus the most massive SMBHs would be very strong gamma ray emitters. These would be highly energetic gamma rays with well over 1 GeV of energy.

Movie from NASA Goddard showing Dr. Jeremy Schnittman’s simulation

Dr. Jeremy Schnittman of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center has investigated possible annihilation rates and the nature of the observable gamma ray spectrum for some simple dark matter models. He used a compute cluster to simulate hundreds of millions of DM particles moving in the general direction of a SMBH. One of his remarkable findings is that much higher gamma ray energies can be produced than previously believed, in the case of SMBHs which are rapidly spinning.

This is a result of something known as the Penrose process, which allows energy to be extracted from a rotating BH. There is a region called the ergosphere outside of the event horizon and when two DM particles annihilate in this region and produce two gamma rays, one gamma ray photon would fall into the event horizon (into the BH), and the other photon would escape to infinity, possibly in the direction of Earth. Dr. Schnittman’s simulation indicates that the energy boost can be as high as 6 times or more. The faster the SMBH is spinning, the greater the potential energy boost.

He also has looked at DM particles on bound orbits, which are likely to form into a (donut-shaped) corotating torus around the SMBH, aligned with its spin vector. The bound DM particle annihilations lead to lower energy gamma ray production, as compared to the unbound particles.

One of the important considerations is that the influence radius of the BH is very large. The size of the BH itself (event horizon or Schwarzschild radius) is small, even for SMBHs. The radius is proportional to the mass, via the relation 2GM/R = c² (G is the gravitational constant, c the speed of light and M and R are the BH mass and radius, respectively). A SMBH with a mass of 10 million solar  masses will have a radius of only around 30 million kilometers, or about 1/5 of the Earth-Sun distance (an AU, or astronomical unit).

But the gravitational influence is much greater, since DM particles are typically expected to be moving at around only a couple of hundred kilometers per second far away from the SMBH. Thus DM particles that are 1 million times further away than the SMBH will have their orbits in their galaxy perturbed by the SMBH. And the scale of influence is thus parsecs (1 parsec = 3.26 light-years) or tens of parsecs or even hundreds of parsecs, depending on the SMBH mass.

The most energetic gamma rays can be produced by unbound DM particles. These are on orbits which can approach near to the SMBH after falling from far away (a “swan dive” toward the SMBH) and these DM particles would then typically head out away from the SMBH in the opposite direction. But before they are able to, they have a direct hit with another DM particle and annihilate into gamma rays or some other decay products.

The search for gamma rays from annihilating DM around SMBHs is already underway. There is in fact a possible detection by the Fermi telescope at 130 GeV in our Milky Way galaxy, from the direction of the Sagittarius A* SMBH. Future more sensitive gamma ray surveys may lead to many detections, helping us to better understand both dark matter and black holes.


J.D. Schnittman, 2015. “The Distribution and Annihilattion of Dark Matter around Black Holes”,

J.D. Schnittman, 2014. Phys. Rev. Letters 113, 261102,  “Revised Upper Limit to Energy Extraction from a Kerr Black Hole”