Tag Archives: supernovae

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 Energy Survey

DES logo

Dark Energy Survey logo

The Dark Energy Survey (DES) is a ground-based cosmology experiment led by astronomers from the US, Brazil and Europe. It has begun its trip to Chile where it is scheduled to begin observations in November, 2011 using the 4 meter Victor M. Blanco telescope in the Atacama desert. It uses a new highly sensitive camera design called DECam, with resolution totaling 570 Megapixels and employing very large pixels, and it emphasizes sensitivity in the red and infrared portions of the spectrum, in order to measure galaxies out to redshifts of 1 and beyond. Galaxies in the early universe are far away from us and have high redshift values. Light which they would have originally emitted in the blue or yellow portions of the optical spectrum has shifted toward the red or infrared, thus the emphasis on detection of infrared photons for this work.

The DES uses a 4-pronged attack to improve the measurement of the dark energy and other cosmological parameters. These 4 tests are:

  1. Supernovae – Type 1a supernovae are thought to occur when a white dwarf in a binary stellar system accretes mass from its companion. Once enough mass is accreted, the white dwarf is pushed over the Chandrasekhar limit of 1.4 solar masses, the gravity of the star’s mass overwhelms the pressure support from its ‘degenerate electron’ matter, and the white dwarf undergoes core collapse and becomes a supernova. It is temporarily as bright as an entire galaxy. Such a supernova can be detected at large distances (high redshifts) and very importantly, since the mass of the supernova is always the same, the absolute brightness of this type of supernova is essentially expected to be the same as well. This allows us to use them as standard candles for distance measurement and thus for cosmological tests.
  2. Baryon acoustic oscillations – This test looks at the statistics of galaxy separations at very large scales. In the early universe, sound waves were established in the hot dense plasma, reflecting pressure generated by the interaction of photons and ordinary matter. Dark matter does not participate except gravitationally. A “sound horizon” is expected with a present size of about 500 million light years, and this acts as a standard ruler as the universe expands. A bump in the correlation function, which measures the probability of one galaxy being near another, is expected at this characteristic distance.
  3. Galaxy cluster counts – This test of how many galaxy clusters are detectable versus redshift was apparently first proposed by myself in 1980, in the context of X-ray emission from the very hot diffuse gas found between galaxies in galaxy clusters. This approach offers certain advantages in comparison to simple galaxy counts versus redshift. In this case it will be performed in the infrared and red, observing the galaxies themselves. Galaxy clusters contain up to 1000 or more galaxies within a single cluster. The number of clusters that can be seen at a given redshift is dependent on the cosmological model and the mass of the cluster, since dark matter promotes cluster formation through gravitational attraction. Dark energy inhibits cluster formation, so this helps to measure the relative strength of dark energy at earlier times. The team expects to detect over 100,000 galaxy clusters, out to redshifts of 1.5.
  4. Weak lensing – This refers to gravitational lensing. This occurs when a source galaxy is behind an intervening galaxy cluster and the gravity of the cluster bends the light from the source galaxy in accordance with general relativity. By surveying a very large number of galaxies, a strong statistical measure of this bending, also known as cosmic shear, can be taken. The amount of shear will be measured as a function of redshift (distance). This shear is sensitive to both the shape of the universe and the way in which structure develops over time.

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