Tag Archives: Milky Way galaxy

Leo II Dwarf Orbits Milky Way: Dark Matter or Emerging Gravity

In a prior blog, “The Curiously Tangential Dwarf Galaxies”, I reported on results from Cautun and Frenk that indicate that a set of 10 dwarf satellite galaxies near the Milky Way with measured proper motions have much more tangential velocity than expected by random. Formally, there is a 5 standard deviation negative velocity anisotropy with over 80% of the kinetic energy in tangential motion.

While in no way definitive, this result appears inconsistent with the canonical cold dark matter assumptions. So one speculation is that the tangential motions are reflective of the theory of emergent gravity, for which dark matter is not required, but for which the gravitational force changes (strengthens) at very low accelerations, of order c \cdot H, where H is the Hubble parameter, and the value at which the force begins to strengthen works out to be accelerations of only less than about 2 centimeters per second per year.

One of the 10 dwarf galaxies in the sample is Leo II. The study of its proper motion has been reported by Piatek, Pryor, and Olszewski. They find that the galactocentric radial and tangential velocity components are 22 and 127 kilometers per second, respectively. While there is a rather large uncertainty in the tangential component, for their measured values some 97% of the kinetic energy is in the tangential motion.


Artist’s rendering of the Local Group of galaxies. This representation is centered on the Milky Way, you can see a large number of dwarf galaxies near the Milky Way and many near the Andromeda Galaxy as well. Leo II is in the swarm around our Milky Way. Image credit: Antonio Ciccolella. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

So let’s look at the implications for this dwarf galaxy, assuming that it is in a low-eccentricity, nearly circular orbit about the Milky Way, which seems possible. We can compare calculations for Newtonian gravity with the implications from Verlinde’s emergent gravity framework.

Under the assumption of a near circular orbit, either there is a lot of dark matter in the Milky Way explaining the high tangential orbital velocity of Leo II, or there is excess gravity. So what do the two alternatives look like?

Let’s look at the dark matter case first. The ordinary matter mass of the Milky Way is measured to be 60 billion solar masses, mostly in stars, but considering gas as well. The distance to the Leo II dwarf galaxy is 236 kiloparsecs (770,000 light-years), well beyond the Milky Way’s outer radius.

So to first order, for a roughly spherical Milky Way, including a dark matter halo, we can evaluate what the total mass including dark matter would be required to hold Leo II in a circular orbit. This is determined by equating the centripetal acceleration v²/R to the gravitational acceleration inward GM/R². So the gravitational mass under Newtonian physics required for velocity v at distance R for a circular orbit is M = R v² / G. Using the tangential velocity and the distance measures above yields a required mass of 870 billion solar masses.

This is 14 times larger than the Milky way’s known ordinary matter mass from stars and gas. Now there are some other dwarf galaxies such as the Magellanic Clouds within the sphere of influence, but they are very much smaller, so this estimate of the total mass required is reasonable to first order. The assumption of circularity is a larger uncertainty. But what this says is something like 13 times as much dark matter as ordinary matter would be required.

Now let’s look at the emergent gravity situation. In this case there is no dark matter, but there is extra acceleration over and above the acceleration due to Newtonian gravity.  To be clear, emergent gravity predicts both general relativity and an extra acceleration term. When the acceleration is modest general relativity reduces to Newtonian dynamics. And when it is very low the total acceleration in the emergent gravity model includes both a Newtonian term and an extra term related to the volume entropy contribution.

In other words, gT = gN + gE is the total acceleration, with gN = GM/R² the Newtonian term and gE the extra term in the emergent gravity formulation. The gN term is calculated using the ordinary mass of 60 billion solar masses, and one gets a tiny acceleration of gN = 1.5 \cdot 10^{-11} centimeters / second / second (cm/s/s).

The extra, or emergent gravity, acceleration is given by the formula gE = sqrt (gN \cdot c \cdot H / 6 ), where H is the Hubble parameter (here we use 70 kilometers/second/Megaparsec). The value of c \cdot H / 6 turns out to be 1.1 \cdot 10^{-8} cm/s/s. This is just a third of a centimeter per second per year.

The extra emergent gravity term from Verlinde’s paper is the square root of the product of 1.1 \cdot 10^{-8} and the Newtonian term amounting to 1.5 \cdot 10^{-11} . Thus the extra gravity is 4.1 \cdot 10^{-10} cm/s/s, which is 27 times larger than the Newtonian acceleration. The total gravity is about 28 times that or 4.3 \cdot 10^{-10} cm/s/s. Now a 28 times larger gravitational acceleration leads to tangential orbital velocities over 5 times greater than expected in the Newtonian case.

Setting v²/R = 4.3 \cdot 10^{-10} cm/s/s and using the distance to Leo II results in an orbital velocity of 177 kilometers/second. With the Newtonian gravity and ordinary matter mass of the Milky Way, one would expect only 33 km/s, a velocity over 5 times lower.

Now the observed tangential velocity is 127 km/s, so the calculated number with emergent gravity is a bit high, but there is no guarantee of a circular orbit. Also, Verlinde’s model assumes quasi-static conditions, and this assumption may break down for a dynamically young system. The time to traverse the distance to Leo II using its radial velocity is of order 10 billion years, so the system may not have settled down sufficiently. There could also be tidal effects from neighbors, or possibly from Andromeda.

This is not a clear argument demonstrating that the Leo II dwarf galaxy’s observed tangential velocity is explained by emergent gravity. But it is a plausible alternative explanation, and made here to show how the calculations work out in this sample case.

So the main alternatives are a Milky Way dominated by dark matter and with a mass close to a trillion solar masses, or a Milky Way of ordinary matter only amounting to 60 billion solar masses. But in that latter case, the Milky Way exerts an extra gravitational force due to emergent gravity that only becomes apparent at very small accelerations less than about 10^{-8} cm/s/s.

Future work with the Hubble and future telescopes is expected to determine many more proper motions in the Local Group so that a fuller dynamical picture of the system can be developed. This will help to discriminate between the emergent gravity and dark matter alternatives.






Supernovae Destroy Dwarf Galaxies: Dark Matter is Safe

The existence of dark matter has not exactly been under threat – the ratio of dark matter to ordinary matter in the universe is well established, at about 5:1 in favor of dark matter. Consistent results are found between observations of the cosmic microwave background, observations of clusters of galaxies, and observations of the rotation curves of galaxies. (The MOND theory as an alternative to dark matter does not do well at scales greater than that of individual galaxy rotation curves.)

But there has been an issue around galaxy formation. It has been expected that many more dwarf galaxies should be seen in our Local Group, which is dominated by the Andromeda Galaxy (#1) and our Milky Way Galaxy (#2, sorry folks), along with the aptly named Triangulum Galaxy (#3).

Where are the Dwarfs?

Our Milky Way has only around 30 dwarf galaxies as companions, the best known of which are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. While a few more have been discovered only recently, simulations of galaxy formation have previously suggested this number ought to be more than 1000! This posed a problem for both our understanding of dark matter and our understanding of galaxy formation.

Now, from CalTech comes a much more detailed simulation of how galaxies similar to the Milky Way are formed. The researchers used over 700,000 CPU hours of supercomputer time to create the most detailed simulation ever of the galaxy formation and evolution processes.

“In a galaxy, you have 100 billion stars, all pulling on each other, not to mention other components we don’t see like dark matter. To simulate this, we give a supercomputer equations describing those interactions and then let it crank through those equations repeatedly and see what comes out at the end.”  – Caltech’s Phil Hopkins, associate professor of theoretical astrophysics.

Death by Supernova

Postdoc Andrew Wetzel and Prof. Hopkins paid special attention to the effects of supernovae. When supernovae explode they release tremendous amounts of kinetic energy. They generate powerful winds that reach speeds of over a thousand kilometers per second.

In a dwarf galaxy an individual supernova can have substantial effect. The researchers’ simulations indicate that dwarf galaxies can actually be destroyed by the effect of even a single supernova during their early history. Stars and gas that would form future stars can both be blown out of the dwarf galaxies. In addition, many dwarf galaxies in the Milky Way’s neighborhood would have been destroyed by the gravitational tidal forces of the Milky Way, the simulations show.

These advanced galaxy evolution simulations appear to solve the dark matter and dwarf galaxy problem. The authors plan to refine their results and develop even greater understanding of galaxy formation with simulations of even greater power in the future.


Simulated View of Milky Way Galaxy
The formation and evolution of the galaxy were done on a supercomputer. Credit: Hopkins Research Group/Caltech


Dark Matter Clumps Tear up Clusters

What is destroying globular clusters?

Globular clusters were formed early in the history of our Milky Way’s history; the 150 or so globular clusters in our galaxy contain many of its oldest stars. Globular clusters are round (hence their name), dense, gravitationally bound collections of stars and can contain hundreds of thousands of stars.

What’s older than globular clusters? Dark matter subhalos! Our galaxy is dominated by dark matter distributed in a halo. Massive supercomputer simulations have shown that regions of higher dark matter density known as subhalos were the seeds for the formation of the galaxy. These subhalos, with millions of solar masses, formed first and supplied the gravity necessary for galaxies to subsequently begin their formation.

Palomar 5 is smaller than most globulars. It was detected only in 1950, in part due to its low mass of only 16,000 solar masses. Palomar 5 is far above the Milky Way’s disk, residing in the dark matter dominated halo, and has been heavily influenced tidally over the past 11 billion years. In its next encounter with the disk, some 100 million plus years into the future, it may even be  completely torn apart by tidal interactions.

Palomar 5 shows significant tidal disruption, with a very long stream of stars trailing out of the cluster, pulled out by tidal forces. The length of the stream is several tens of degrees across the sky, some 30,000 light-years in extent. This is greater than the distance from the Sun to the center of the Milky Way. The stream’s mass is 5000 times that of the Sun.

Of great significance are two well defined gaps in the stream. These gaps are very intriguing to astrophysicists, because they may be probes of the nature of the dark matter in our galaxy’s halo.


Upper portion of Figure 9 from Erkal et al. (referenced below). The two gaps are centered on the dotted lines.

Recently three astrophysicists from the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University have modeled the stream and these two gaps and described three main possible causes of the gaps: the Milky Way’s bar (our galaxy has spiral arms leading into a central bar), giant molecular clouds, and/or dark matter halos. (Erkal et al. paper in References below).

They find that gravitational interaction from giant molecular clouds might explain the smaller gap, but not the larger one. Interaction from the Milky Way’s bar is another possibility, but might not be the best for producing such clean gaps, that on the face of it, seem to be due to discrete encounters with smaller structures.

Because of the well defined nature of the gaps, the researchers’ preliminary conclusion is that dark matter halos caused both, and especially so in the case of the larger gap. The smaller gap could be caused by giant molecular clouds, but probably not the larger gap.

The leading tail of the star stream (shown on the left side of the figure) has a two degree gap; this is consistent with an interaction from a dark matter subhalo of 1 to 10 million solar masses. The trailing tail has a nine degree gap that is consistent with perturbation of the stream due to a dark matter subhalo of 10 to 100 million solar masses.

Additional data from several planned experiments should allow better discrimination between the possible causes of the gaps. It is very interesting to note that if the smaller gap is due to a sub halo of a few million solar masses, that knowledge in turn can be used to constrain the mass of the dark matter particles to be greater than 2% of the electron rest mass. This would rule out axions as the dominant contributor to dark matter; the axion mass is expected to be much less than 1 electron-Volt (eV) whereas the electron mass is 511,000 eV.


Erkal, D., Koposov S., and Belokurov V. 2016 “A sharper view of Pal 5’s tails”

Kupper, A. et al. 2015 “Globular Cluster Streams as Galactic High-Precision Scales”

Kuzma, P. et al. 2014 “Palomar 5 and its Tidal Tails”

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”

Blue Tides and the Milky Way

I recently wrote about the  largest high-redshift cosmological simulation of galaxy formation ever, which has been recently completed by a group of astrophysicists in the U.S. and the U.K. This tour-de-force simulation, named BlueTides, was performed on the Blue Waters Cray XE supercomputer at NCSA and employed 648,000 cores. The researchers utilized approximately 700 billion particles (!) to represent dark matter and ordinary matter and to create galaxies inside the supercomputer.

You can find the full article describing the simulation at

Galaxies are the fundamental building blocks of the large scale structure of the universe. Very early on, before the first galaxies formed, the universe was a highly uniform mix of dark matter and ordinary matter, but with about 5 times as much dark matter by mass relative to the ordinary matter (protons, neutrons, electrons) that makes up the visible parts of galaxies, including stars, gas and dust. Ares of higher dark matter density play a key role in gravitationally attracting ordinary matter that forms galaxies and stars.

When we think of the word galaxy we typically think of beautiful modern day spiral galaxies, such as the Andromeda Galaxy. Spiral galaxies are flattened, rotating disks; the spiral arms represent concentrations of matter and of star-forming regions. The most distant disk-shaped galaxies that have been detected are at redshifts of 2 to 3, so we are seeing them as they were when the universe was around 2 to 3 billion years old. (The higher the redshift the more distant the galaxy and also the farther back in time we are looking, toward the universe’s origin some 13.8 billion years ago).


Two spiral galaxies starting to collide. Image Credit: Debra Meloy Elmegreen (Vassar College) et al.,
& the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA)

The BlueTides simulation provides insight into what was going on when the universe was only around 1/2 a billion years old, with galaxy redshifts around 8 to 10. It does a good job of matching the limited observational data we have at such highredshifts, in particular the rest frame (before redshift) ultraviolet luminosities of the earliest detected galaxies from the Hubble Space Telescope surveys.

Their simulation finds that, among the most massive galaxies in their simulation, “a significant fraction are visually disk-like, and surprisingly regular in shape”. In other words, they appear to be the progenitors of present-day spiral galaxies. They find that, at a redshift of 8, a full 70% of their virtual galaxies with masses above 10 billion solar masses are classifiable as disks, since a majority of stellar orbits lie in the plane of the disk.


Simulated high-redshift galaxies from BlueTides – Figure 1 from Feng et al.

They also find that mergers are not of major significance in the build-up of these early massive galaxies. Rather it appears that they grew primarily by cold gas arriving from preferred directions, namely along filaments in the density distribution of the background gas. It is well known that the universe has a web-like or filamentary structure of high density regions interspersed with voids (relatively empty regions). This filamentary structure is believed on the basis of many simulations of the large-scale universe to have begun at an early date.

A future infrared satellite known as WFIRST will have a field of view 200 times larger than the Wide Field Camera on the Hubble. Also, its design for infrared radiation detection makes it appropriate for studying the light from high-redshift galaxies. The authors predict that a survey of 2000 square degrees with WFIRST should find roughly 8000 massive disk-type galaxies at redshifts above 8. Future very large ground-based telescopes will be able to make follow-up observations of galaxies discovered by WFIRST. Such observations will provide further insight into the nature of galaxy formation, including accretion of material from the background and the details of dark matter’s role in the process.


Feng et al. 2015, “The Formation of Milky Way-Mass Disk Galaxies in the First 500 Million Years of a Cold Dark Matter Universe”

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

Discovery of several dwarf galaxies near the Magellanic Clouds

Dwarf galaxies are, as the name implies, small or even tiny galaxies with much lower mass and luminosity than large galaxies such as our own Milky Way galaxy or the Andromeda galaxy or Triangulum galaxy. The first two galaxies are the dominant members of our Local Group of galaxies, which has over 50 members. While the Milky Way and Andromeda have over 200 billion stars each, most all of the others are much smaller and intrinsically fainter, and thus are considered dwarf galaxies. Around half of these known dwarf galaxies are companions to our Milky Way, and the rest are companions of Andromeda.


Previously known dwarf satellite galaxies around our Milky Way galaxy are shown as blue dots and the 9 new candidates are shown as red dots. Image: Yao-Yuan Mao, Ralf Kaehler, Risa Wechsler (KIPAC/SLAC).

The Dark Energy Survey “powered up” in the second half of 2013. Using the Dark Energy  Camera at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American observatory in Chile, two teams of astronomers have now made a stunning discovery of 9 new dwarf objects in the vicinity of, and gravitationally bound to, our own Milky Way. Three of these are confirmed to be dwarf galaxies. The other six objects are either dwarf galaxies or globular clusters, and further observations will be required to determine how many of these are indeed dwarf galaxies.

These new dwarf galaxies and dwarf galaxy candidates were found in the vicinity of the Magellanic Clouds, in the Southern Hemisphere. Those are themselves the two best known of all dwarf galaxies, but are substantially brighter and larger than these new dwarf galaxy candidates. In fact it is possible, but not certain, that the newly discovered dwarf galaxies have interacted with one or both of the Magellanic Clouds in the past.

This discovery of 3 or more new dwarf galaxies near to our Milky Way, in the range of about 100,000 light-years to 1.2 million light-years away from us, has important implications for our understanding of dark matter and cosmology generally. We know from a wide range of observations, including the latest Planck satellite results, that dark matter is 5 times more common than ordinary matter in the universe.

Dark matter and ordinary matter are distributed differently. Think of dark matter as the scaffolding which controls the overall distribution of matter at large scale. Ordinary matter is thus controlled gravitationally by the dark matter background. But ordinary matter also clumps together at smaller scales because as it collapses (falls into a gravitational potential well) it heats up via frictional processes. Next it radiates away energy, leading to cooling, and thus further collapse. This is how we end up with galaxies and stellar formation.

Large galaxies will be dominated by ordinary matter toward their centers, but by dark matter in their outer regions and halos. Many dwarf galaxies appear to have few stars, as little as only a few thousand, reflecting quite modest amounts of ordinary matter. These galaxies are heavily dominated by dark matter, sometimes 99% or more.

There is a whole theory of galaxy formation based on the growth of dark matter-dominated density perturbations that collapse under their own gravity, even while the universe as a whole is expanding. Ordinary matter is pulled into the regions of high dark matter density, leading to galaxy formation. Low density regions do not collapse, but keep on expanding in,the “Hubble flow”.

Numerical simulations of the growth of these dark matter density perturbations and of galaxy formation suggest there should be large numbers of dwarf galaxies. As we continue to discover more dwarf galaxies in the vicinity of our Milky Way, through the Dark Energy Survey and other experiments, our confidence in our understanding of cosmology and of galactic formation and evolution will continue to grow.

References  – CNET article – Article at University of Cambridge astronomy web site – Article at Fermilab web site (home of the Dark Energy Survey) – Dark Energy Survey web site – S. Koposov, V. Belokurov, G. Torrealba, N. Wyn Evans, ”Beasts of the Southern Wild. Discovery of a large number of Ultra Faint satellites in the vicinity of the Magellanic Clouds”

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”

Dark Matter on Mars?

Yes, there is most likely dark matter on Mars, and on Earth as well, and throughout our Solar System. The Curiosity rover will not be searching for dark matter, it not only does not have the right instrumentation, but it also remains on the surface, which is not the way to pursue dark matter searches. On Earth, the direct detection experiments searching for dark matter are made primarily by deploying large crystalline detectors in laboratories within deep mines or inside mountains. A lot of shielding is required. There are too many other sources such as cosmic rays and solar wind particles that would interfere with the search.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS  Curiosity Rover

“The expected rate of WIMP interactions is already constrained to be very small (less than one event per kg-year) and the expected nuclear recoil energy is very low (100 keV or less) so background rejection is crucial…  neutrons produce nuclear recoils identical to those from WIMP interactions. To eliminate the fast neutron flux induced by cosmic rays, such experiments must be located deep underground.” –

And given the expected interaction rate, one needs detectors with many kilograms of detector volume; a ton or more is desirable. They also need intensive calibration, care and feeding by scientists and technicians.

The dark matter density is expected to be comparable throughout our solar system and in the neighborhood of the Sun. The canonical value that most models use comes from measures of our galaxy’s dynamics and is 0.3 GeV per cubic centimeter (cc). This density is determined by looking at the large-scale gravitational effects of dark matter spread throughout our Milky Way galaxy, including its effect on the rotation rate as a function of distance from the galaxy’s center. It’s important to determine this number to get a handle on the predicted flux of dark matter particles impinging on a detector in one of the labs on Earth.

What does this 0.3 GeV per cc mean in terms of particle density? Well the mass of a proton is about 0.9 GeV where GeV is a billion (giga) electron-Volts and one electron-Volt is the energy of moving a single electron through a one Volt electron potential. This is a convenient unit of measurement for particle physicists. Since GeV is an energy, strictly speaking the mass is in units of GeV/c² (energy divided by the speed of light squared, in accordance with Einstein’s famous equation), “GeV” is used for shorthand. So if the mass of the dark matter particle were equal to the proton, that would imply about 1/3 of a particle per cc. But dark matter particles are heavier than protons according to particle physicists, significantly heavier.

On very large scales, in the early universe, slightly over-dense regions collapsed out of the general Big Bang driven-expansion due to their internal gravity (dominated by the dark matter within) and the ordinary matter in those regions formed galaxies and groups of galaxies, including clusters with up to 1000 or more galaxies. At the cluster of galaxies level the dark matter is dominant, but within an individual galaxy like our Milky Way ordinary matter can dominate due to the high degree of contraction possible with ordinary matter. Dark matter does not clump to the same degree as it can’t “cool off” via radiation.

So while dark matter dominates on the largest scales within the universe, amounting to 5 times as much matter as ordinary matter, within our galaxy the ordinary matter density is larger. Ordinary matter clumps more easily than dark matter, since it interacts with itself and light readily and undergoes cooling via radiative processes. The removal of energy via radiation allows matter to clump into molecular clouds and in turn form into stars and planets from that material.

A recent study by astronomers and astrophysicists associated with research institutes in Switzerland, Germany, the UK and China has used a new method and new data from a large sample of red dwarf stars to measure the dark matter density in the solar neighborhood. In this case what we mean by the neighborhood is up to about 3000 light-years from the Sun, and what is measured is an average number across that large region.

Their method makes fewer assumptions than other methods about the nature of the shape of our galaxy’s halo, i.e. the details of how the density of regular matter falls off as one moves away from the galaxy center. The new result is about 0.9 GeV per cc and comes with a large error bar of +/- 0.5. It does suggest the correct value may be 3 times higher than that previously assumed. Since the proton mass is 0.9 GeV, coincidentally, this would imply the equivalent of around one proton per cc in mass density. The dark matter particle is heavier, so the number of dark matter particles would be lower than one per cc.

Dark matter is thought to be due to a new particle, a WIMP (weakly-interacting massive particle) of some sort such as the lightest supersymmetric particle, which would remain stable against decay over billions of years. No such supersymmetric particle is yet detected, but the LHC (Large Hadron collider outside of Geneva) is working on the supersymmetry problem as well as the Higgs boson. The apparent discovery of the Higgs boson with mass around 125 GeV by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at LHC is consistent with supersymmetry.

While we don’t know the mass for dark matter WIMPs, the range of somewhat less than 10 GeV up to 1000 GeV is generally favored. Using the new value of 0.9 GeV per cc for dark matter density indicates that if the dark matter mass is around 10 GeV then there would be 1/10 of a dark matter particle per cc (or 100 per liter). If the mass of the particle is around 100 GeV then there would be one dark matter particle per 100 cc (which is 10 per liter).

So even with the potential  increase of a factor of 3 in actual density, this is an extremely rare particle and each one has a very low probability of actually interacting with ordinary matter and being detected. Which is why detectors are growing to 1 ton in size and multiple years of very sensitive observations are needed to place limits on the amount of dark matter or, more hopefully, obtain a statistically significant positive detection. A lot of progress is expected in the next couple of years with a new generation of larger detectors coming on line.


S. Garbari, C. Liu, J.I. Read, G. Lake 2012, Mon. Not. R. Astron. Soc., submitted; arXiv:1206.0015v2 “A new determination of the local dark matter density from the kinematics of K dwarfs”