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Tag Archives: neutron stars

Dark Globular Clusters

Globular clusters are highly compact star clusters containing hundreds of thousands or even millions of old stars. The stars found in a globular cluster can be up to almost 13 billion years old, and thus act as good tracers of the early history of our Milky Way Galaxy, or of other galaxies in which they are found.

Our Galaxy has about 150 or so globular clusters, and our neighbor the Andromeda Galaxy has over 500. Because they are so compact, they are tightly gravitationally bound, and tend to be very spherical, hence the description as globular. They also orbit our Galaxy in the halo and in various directions; they are not confined to the disk where most of the other stars of the Milky Way are found. This suggests a history for globulars (as they are also called) that predates the formation of the Milky Way’s disk and spiral arms. Many globulars may be remnants of dwarf galaxies that have been pulled into the Milky Way during its long lifetime, or have been captured by the Milky Way as it consumed another, smaller galaxy in its vicinity.

M13

M13 globular cluster

The large majority of globular clusters are thought to contain little dark matter. They contain no dust or gas, their matter appears to be all in stars. Astronomers are able to measure the mass of globulars by determining how fast stars are moving around in the core, and by measuring the size of the globulars. Assuming the globulars are gravitationally relaxed, which most appear to be, then the mass within a certain radius is proportional to the radius and the square of the velocities of stars relative to the globular’s center and within that radius. Some assumptions need to be made about the falloff of matter density, and projection effects corrected, but these can be calculated and compared with observations to provide a self-consistent model.

Going through these steps, and also measuring the absolute brightness of the globular (which requires a distance measurement) allows something called a mass-to-light ratio for the globular to be determined. This is stated in terms of solar units, i.e., using the mass in relation to the Sun’s mass and the absolute brightness in relation to the Sun’s luminosity.

Typical mass-to-light ratios for most globulars are of order unity, say 1 or 2 or 3. This indicates little dark matter is present (we know the dark matter content of ordinary stars such as the Sun is low).

But now some possible dark matter-containing globular clusters have been found. To be more precise, some globular clusters with quite high mass-to-light ratios have been found around Centaurus A.

eso1519a

Centaurus A galaxy and globular clusters observed by the Very Large Telescope (ESO)

Centaurus A is a peculiar galaxy about 10 million light-years or so away, and is the fifth brightest galaxy in the sky by apparent magnitude. It is classified as a giant elliptical, or lenticular, galaxy with peculiar characteristics. It has a very prominent dust lane through the center as seen in the photograph above, and also possesses a large relativistic jet visible at radio and X-ray wavelengths. There is a black hole at the center of Centaurus A with a mass of over 50 million solar masses. Centaurus A may have as many as 2000 globular clusters.

A study of 125 of the brighter globular clusters in the Centaurus A galaxy, by Matthew Taylor and co-authors, was made at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. The locations of the globulars are indicated in the green, blue and red circles superimposed on Centaurus A’s image. A certain fraction of the globulars with masses above a million solar masses showed the characteristic that the mass-to-light ratio was abnormally high, and becomes higher nearly in proportion to the mass of the globular. This set of globulars is denoted in red circles in the image. The most massive of the red circle globulars have the highest mass-to-light ratios.

The authors find, quoting from their paper, “a distinct group of objects which require significant dark gravitating components such as central massive black holes and/or exotically concentrated dark matter distributions.” These objects have mass-to-light ratios above 6, and half a dozen have mass-to-light ratios over 15, including one object with a very high ratio of 67.

Several explanations are proposed. One is rotation of the globulars in question, but the authors are able to rule this explanation out since the stability of the cluster would be destroyed. Another is massive black holes in the centers of these globulars. This would require black holes with masses in the range 40,000 to over 1 million solar masses, and would be quite an exciting finding in its own right. There is evidence for intermediate mass black holes in a few other globular clusters found in the Milky Way and other galaxies. An additional possibility is the accumulation of many smaller stellar-sized black holes and/or neutron stars in the center of the cluster that would modify the cluster’s dynamical properties.

Yet another possibility is the presence of significant dark matter. If verified there would be important implications for globular cluster formation histories. This study should lead to a rush for other observations to ferret out high mass-to-light ratio globular clusters and to allow astronomers to distinguish between the black hole, dark stellar remnant, and dark matter possible scenarios.

Already there is a Wikipedia entry for “dark globular clusters”.

References

http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1519/

http://www.eso.org/public/archives/releases/sciencepapers/eso1519/eso1519a.pdf, submitted to the Astrophysical Journal

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AMS Positron Excess: Due to Dark Matter or not?

The first results from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), which is an experiment operating in orbit on the International Space Station (ISS), have been released.

ImageIt’s been two years since the delivery via Space Shuttle to the ISS (in May, 2011) of the AMS-02 instrument, which was especially designed to explore the properties of antimatter. And it’s been a long time coming to get to this point, since the experiment was first proposed in 1995 by the Nobel Prize-winning M.I.T. physicist, professor Samuel Ting. A prototype instrument, the AMS-01, flew in a short-duration Space Shuttle mission in 1998, and had much lower sensitivity.

Over 16 countries across the globe participate in the AMS mission, and the instrument underwent testing at the CERN particle physics research center near Geneva and also in the Netherlands before being launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The lifetime of the mission is expected to extend for over 10 years. In this first data release, with over 30 billion cosmic rays detected, the AMS has detected among these over 400,000 positrons, the positively charged antiparticles to electrons. This is the most antimatter that has ever been directly measured in space.

It is hoped that the AMS can shed light on dark matter, since one of the possible signatures of dark matter is the production of positrons and electrons when dark matter particles annihilate. This assumes that some type of WIMP is the explanation for dark matter, WIMP meaning a “weakly interacting massive particle”. Weakly interacting signifies that dark matter particles (in this scenario highly favored by many physicists) would interact through the weak nuclear force, but not the electromagnetic force. Which basically explains why we can’t easily detect them except through their gravitational effects. Massive particle refers to a particle substantially more massive than a proton or neutron, which have rest masses of just under 1 GeV (1 giga volt) in energy terms. A WIMP dark matter particle mass could be 10 to 1000 times or more higher. The lightest member of the neutralino family is the most-favored hypothesized WIMP dark matter candidate.

The figure below shows the positron relative abundance versus energy, based on 18 months of AMS operational data. The energy of detected positrons ranges from 1/2 GeV to over 300 GeV. The abundance, shown on the y-axis, is the fraction of positrons relative to total electrons and positrons detected at a given energy. The spectrum shows a clear trend to relatively fewer positrons as the energy grows to 10 GeV and then a substantially increasing relative number of positrons at higher energies. This general shape for the spectrum was seen with previous experiments including Fermi, Caprice94 and Pamela, but is much clearer with the AMS due to the higher resolution and significantly greater number of positrons detected. It is particularly this increase in positrons seen above 10 GeV that is suggestive of sources other than the general cosmic ray background.

PositronspectrumFigure: Positron relative fraction (y-axis) versus energy (x-axis)

So what is the source of the energetic positrons detected by the AMS? Some or all of these could be produced when two dark matter WIMP particles meet one another. In the WIMP scenario the dark matter particle such as the neutralino is neutrally charged (no electromagnetic interaction, remember) and also its own antiparticle. And when a particle meets its antiparticle what happens is that they mutually annihilate. The energy of the pair of colliding dark matter particles is transformed into lighter particles, including electron-positron pairs and energetic photons including gamma rays.

Another likely source is pulsars, which are rotating neutron stars with magnetic fields. Since neutron stars are compact and rotate quickly, and their magnetic field strengths are high, electrons and positrons can be accelerated to very high energy. In particular, the Geminga pulsar is the closest energetic pulsar and has been suggested as a major source of these extra positrons.

More data is needed, especially at higher energies above 100 GeV. Over the next few years as AMS continues to operate and the number of positrons detected climbs to 1 million and above, this spectral shape will be better determined. And as the shape of the high-energy portion of the spectrum becomes clearer, it will help elucidate whether dark matter or pulsars or something else are the primary source of the positrons.

You can follow AMS-02 on Facebook here.

References:

http://www.ams02.org/2013/04/first-results-from-the-alpha-magnetic-spectrometer-ams-experiment/

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/04/science/space/new-clues-to-the-mystery-of-dark-matter.html

http://press.web.cern.ch/backgrounders/first-result-ams-experiment

http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2009/aug/10/excess-positrons-are-linked-to-geminga-pulsar

https://darkmatterdarkenergy.com/2012/06/05/antimatter-is-not-dark-matter-antimatter-being-uncovered-with-nuclear-reactors/