Tag Archives: dark matter halos

Gamma Rays from Dark Matter at the Center of the Galaxy: Stronger Evidence

Evidence has been growing for the detection of dark matter more directly – at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Normally, we detect dark matter through its gravitational effects only, although there have been many attempts to detect it more directly, both through laboratory experiments here on Earth and from astronomical measurements. The Earthbound experiments are inconclusive at best, with some claims of detection being contradicted by other experiments.

But the evidence for astronomical detection of dark matter is growing. Expected sources include dwarf galaxies that are found near our Milky Way. The low luminosity of dwarf galaxies due to stars and supernovae can make it easier to extract evidence of dark matter due to its self annihilation.

Our own Milky Way Galaxy has a higher concentration of normal matter at the center, and is expected to have a higher concentration of dark matter as well. For the past 5 years or so, there has been evidence for possible dark matter annihilation at the Galactic Center. See

The mechanism is dark matter self-annihilation, resulting in the creation of decay products of ordinary matter and gamma rays (highly energetic photons). See one of my prior blogs at:

The leading dark matter candidate is some sort of WIMP (weakly interacting massive particle). WIMPs interact only via gravity and perhaps the weak nuclear force. WIMP self-annihilations can produce quarks, neutrinos, gamma rays and other ordinary matter particles.

There is a known gamma ray signal in the Galactic Center (the center of our Milky Way) that extends to 5 degrees away from the center, corresponding to roughly a kiloparsec in extent (a kiloparsec is 3260 light-years, and our Sun is 8 kiloparsecs from the Center). The major alternatives for this signal appear to be dark matter annihilation, cosmic ray interactions with interstellar gas, or emission from rapidly rotating neutron stars (millisecond pulsars).

A recent paper from T. Daylan and co-authors from Harvard, MIT, Princeton, the University of Chicago and the Fermi Laboratory is titled “The Characterization of the Gamma-Ray Signal from the Central Milky Way: A Compelling Case for Annihilating Dark Matter”. They have reanalyzed observations from the Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope and confirmed that the distribution of gamma rays in the Galactic Center (GC) is largely spherically symmetric and extended. This spatial distribution likely rules out neutron stars as the source, since these are preferentially found in the galactic disk. 


1-3 GeV residual gamma ray image. From Fig. 10 of T. Daylan et al., this is corrected for galactic diffuse emission and has point sources subtracted. The image extends over a 10◦ by 10◦ region.

Dark matter, on the other hand, would be expected to have a roughly spherical distribution around the GC. Interstellar gas is also largely confined to the galactic disk, so this explanation is disfavored. Their study also confirms that the emission extends beyond the GC to what is known as the Inner Galaxy, further ruling out the two alternatives other than dark matter annihilation. The emission falls off in intensity away from the GC, in a manner consistent with a spherically symmetric dark matter density distribution that is in accordance with a Navarro-Frenk-White profile often used successfully in modeling dark matter halos. No evidence is found for any significant deviation from spherical symmetry for the GC and Inner Galaxy components, the latter extending out to around 2 kiloparsecs.

There are various possible annihilation channels for dark matter and the authors’ analysis appears to favor a dominant channel to primarily b quarks (and b antiquarks). In this scenario the WIMP mass appears to lie in the range of 36 to 51 GeV (by comparison a proton or neutron mass is about .94 GeV). Recall that there are 6 types of quarks, and protons and neutrons are composed of u and d (up and down) quarks. The others are b, t, c, s (bottom, top, charm and strange). The quarks other than u and d are unstable and will decay to u and d.

The spectral (energy) distribution peaks at gamma ray energies of around 1 to 3 GeV and is a good fit to the predictions for annihilation to a b quark pair (b and anti-b). In addition, the cross-section for annihilation calculated from the gamma ray intensity is consistent with that expected from the required rate of thermal production of dark matter particles in the early universe, of order 10^-26 cm^3/sec (actually a value of the cross-section multiplied by the average velocity). The observed dark matter abundance freezes out from thermal equilibrium in the early universe as it expanded and cooled, and implies a cross section of that order.

There is also the possibility for other decay channels, including decays to u, d, c, s and t quarks and to tau lepton particles. The spectral shapes disfavor decays to tau leptons and u, d quarks in particular. After decays to b quarks, the c (charm) and s (strange) quark channels are the most likely.  Either a c or s quark channel implies somewhat lower WIMP masses, around the 20 to 40 GeV range. Annihilations to other fermions appear less likely.

In summary, quoting from their paper:

“This signal consists of a very large number of events, and has been detected with overwhelming statistical significance. The the excess consists of ∼ 10,000 gamma rays per square meter, per year above 1 GeV (from within 10◦ of the Galactic Center). Not only does this large number of events enable us to conclude with confidence that the signal is present, but it also allows us to determine its spectrum and morphology in some detail. And as shown, the measured spectrum, angular distribution, and normalization of this emission does indeed match well with that expected from annihilating dark matter particles.”

“There is no reason to expect that any diffuse astrophysical emission processes would exhibit either the spectrum or the morphology of the observed signal. In particular, the spherical symmetry of the observed emission with respect to the Galactic Center does not trace any combination of astrophysical components (i.e. radiation, gas, dust, star formation, etc.), but does follow the square of the anticipated dark matter density.”

There are also possible detections, marginally significant, of gamma ray emission due to dark matter in nearby dwarf galaxies, and in the direction of the Virgo cluster. We look forward to additional observations and theoretical work to confirm dark matter annihilation signals in our own galaxy and nearby galaxies.

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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

Forming the First Galaxies: Blue Tides on Blue Waters

The largest high-redshift cosmological simulation of galaxy formation ever has been recently completed by a group of astrophysicists from the U.S. and the U.K. This tour-de-force simulation was performed on the Blue Waters Cray XE/XK system at NCSA and employed 648,000 CPU cores. They utilized approximately 700 billion particles (!) to represent dark matter and ordinary matter and to create virtual galaxies inside the supercomputer. The authors, who represent Carnegie Mellon University, UC Berkeley, Princeton University, and the University of Sussex, have given their simulation the moniker BlueTides.

The astrophysicists simulated galaxy formation in a “box” 2 billion light-years on a side. At redshifts of  z = 8 to 10,  which is the maximum for which we have observed real galaxies, their simulation matches the data from the Hubble Space Telescope. And yes, dark matter plays a key role – it is the main gravitational sink that pulls in ordinary matter that forms the stars, gas, and dust that are the primary visible components of galaxies. Without dark matter, our Milky Way would be much smaller, and you probably wouldn’t be here. You can learn more about the BlueTides simulation results and methodology at

  Hubble Ultra Deep Field; STScI