Tag Archives: X-ray clusters

Galaxy Clusters Probe Dark Energy

Rich (large) clusters of galaxies are significant celestial X-ray sources. In fact, large clusters of galaxies typically contain around 10 times as much mass in the form of very hot gas as is contained in their constituent galaxies.

Moreover, the dark matter content of clusters is even greater than the gas content; typically it amounts to 80% to 90% of the cluster mass. In fact, the first detection of dark matter’s gravitational effects was made by Fritz Zwicky in the 1930s. His measurements indicated that the galaxies were moving around much faster than expected from the known galaxy masses within the cluster.


Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Alabama/A. Morandi et al; Optical: SDSS, NASA/STScI (X-ray emission is shown in purple)

The dark matter’s gravitational field controls the evolution of a cluster. As a cluster forms via gravitational collapse, ordinary matter falling into the strong gravitational field interacts via frictional processes and shocks and thermalizes at a high temperature in the range of 10 to 100 million degrees (Kelvins). The gas is so hot, that it emits X-rays due to thermal bremsstrahlung.

Recently, Drs. Morandi and Sun at the University of Alabama have implemented a new test of dark energy using the observed X-ray emission profiles of clusters of galaxies. Since clusters are dominated by the infall of primordial gas (ordinary matter) into dark matter dominated gravitational wells, then X-ray emission profiles – especially in the outer regions of clusters – are expected to be similar, after correcting for temperature variations and the redshift distance. Their analysis also considers variation in gas fraction with redshift; this is found to be minimal.

Because of the self similar nature of the X-ray emission profiles, X-ray clusters of galaxies can serve as cosmological probes, a type of ‘standard candle’. In particular, they can be used to probe dark energy, and to look at the possibility of the variation of the strength of dark energy over multi-billion year cosmological time scales.

The reason this works is that cluster development and mass growth, and corresponding temperature increase due to stronger gravitational potential wells, are essentially a tradeoff of dark matter and dark energy. While dark matter causes a cluster to grow, dark energy inhibits further growth.

This varies with the redshift of a cluster, since dark energy is constant per unit volume as the universe expands, but dark matter was denser in the past in proportion to (1 + z)^3, where z is the cluster redshift. In the early universe, dark matter thus dominated, as it had a much higher density, but in the last several billion years, dark energy has come to dominate and impede further growth of clusters.

The table below shows the percentage of the mass-energy of the universe which is in the form of dark energy and in the form of matter (both dark and ordinary) at a given redshift, assuming constant dark energy per unit volume. This is based on the best estimate from Planck of 68% of the total mass-energy density due to dark energy at present (z = 0). Higher redshift means looking farther back in time. At z = 0.5, around 5 billion years ago, matter still dominated over dark energy, but by around z = 0.3 the two are about equal and since then (for smaller z) dark energy has dominated. It is only since after the Sun and Earth formed that the universe has entered the current dark energy dominated era.

Table: Total Matter & Dark Energy Percentages vs. z 


Dark Energy percent

Matter percent



















The authors analyzed data from a large sample consisting of 320 clusters of galaxies observed with the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The clusters ranged in redshifts from 0.056 up to 1.24 (almost 9 billion years ago), and all of the selected clusters had temperatures measured to be equal to or greater than 3 keV (above 35 million Kelvins). For such hot clusters, non-gravitational astrophysical effects, are expected to be small.

Their analysis evaluated the equation of state parameter, w, of dark energy. If dark energy adheres to the simplest model, that of the cosmological constant (Λ) found in the equations of general relativity, then w = -1 is expected.

The equation of state governs the relationship between pressure and energy density; dark energy is observed to have a negative pressure, for which w < 0, unlike for matter.

Their resulting value for the equation of state parameter is

w = -1.02 +/- 0.058,

equal to -1 within the statistical errors.

The results from combining three other experiments, namely

  1. Planck satellite cosmic microwave background (CMB) measurements
  2. WMAP satellite CMB polarization measurements
  3. optical observations of Type 1a supernovae

yield a value

w = -1.09 +/- 0.19,

also consistent with a cosmological constant. And combining both the X-ray cluster results with the CMB and optical results yields a tight constraint of

w = -1.01 +/- 0.03.

Thus a simple cosmological constant explanation for dark energy appears to be a sufficient explanation to within a few percent accuracy.

The authors were also able to constrain the evolution in w and find, for a model with

w(z) = w(0) + wa * z / (1 + z), that the evolution parameter is zero within statistical errors:

wa = -0.12 +/- 0.4.

This is a powerful test of dark energy’s existence, equation of state, and evolution, using hundreds of X-ray clusters of galaxies. There is no evidence for evolution in dark energy with redshift back to around z = 1, and a simple cosmological constant model is supported by the data from this technique as well as from other methods.


  1. Morandi, M. Sun arXiv:1601.03741v3 [astro-ph.CO] 4 Feb 2016, “Probing dark energy via galaxy cluster outskirts”

Dark Matter: Made of Sterile Neutrinos?


Composite image of the Bullet Group showing galaxies, hot gas (shown in pink) and dark matter (indicated in blue). Credit: ESA / XMM-Newton / F. Gastaldello (INAF/IASF, Milano, Italy) / CFHTLS 

What’s more elusive than a neutrino? Why a sterile neutrino, of course. In the Standard Model of particle physics there are 3 types of “regular” neutrinos. The ghost-like neutrinos are electrically neutral particles with 1/2 integer spins and very small masses. Neutrinos are produced in weak interactions, for example when a neutron decays to a proton and an electron. The 3 types are paired with the electron and its heavier cousins, and are known as electron neutrinos, muon neutrinos, and tau neutrinos (νe, νμ, ντ).

A postulated extension to the Standard Model would allow a new type of neutrino, known as a sterile neutrino. “Sterile” refers to the fact that this hypothetical particle would not feel the standard weak interaction, but would couple to regular neutrino oscillations (neutrinos oscillate among the 3 types, and until this was realized there was consternation around the low number of solar neutrinos detected). Sterile neutrinos are more ghostly than regular neutrinos! The sterile neutrino would be a neutral particle, like other neutrino types, and would be a fermion, with spin 1/2. The number of types, and the respective masses, of sterile neutrinos (assuming they exist) is unknown. Since they are electrically neutral and do not feel the standard weak interaction they are very difficult to detect. But the fact that they are very hard to detect is just what makes them candidates for dark matter, since they still interact gravitationally due to their mass.

What about regular neutrinos as the source of dark matter? The problem is that their masses are too low, less than 1/3 of an eV (electron-Volt) total for the three types. They are thus “too hot” (speeds and velocity dispersions too high, being relativistic) to explain the observed properties of galaxy formation and clumping into groups and clusters. The dark matter should be “cold” or non-relativistic, or at least no more than “warm”, to correctly reproduce the pattern of galaxy groups, filaments, and clusters we observe in our Universe.

Constraints can be placed on the minimum mass for a sterile neutrino to be a good dark matter candidate. Observations of the cosmic microwave background and of hydrogen Lyman-alpha emission in quasar spectra have been used to set a lower bound of 2 keV for the sterile neutrino’s mass, if it is the predominant component of dark matter. A sterile neutrino with this mass or larger is expected to have a decay channel into a photon with half of the rest-mass energy and a regular (active) neutrino with half the energy.

A recent suggestion is that an X-ray emission feature seen at 3.56 keV (kilo-electron Volts) from galaxy clusters is a result of the decay of sterile neutrinos into photons with that energy plus active (regular) neutrinos with similar energy. This X-ray emission line has been seen in a data set from the XMM-Newton satellite that stacks results from 73 clusters of galaxies together. The line was detected in 2 different instruments with around 4 or 5 standard deviations significance, so the existence of the line itself is on a rather strong footing. However, it is necessary to prove that the line is not from an atomic transition from argon or some other element. The researchers argue that an argon line should be much, much weaker than the feature that is detected.

In addition, a second team of researchers, also using XMM-Newton data have claimed detection of lines at the same 3.56 keV energy in the Perseus cluster of galaxies as well as our neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy.

There are no expected atomic transition lines at this energy, so the dark matter decay possibility has been suggested by both teams. An argon line around 3.62 KeV is a possible influence on the signal, but is expected to be very much weaker. Confirmation of these XMM-Newton results are required from other experiments in order to gain more confidence in the reality of the 3.56 keV feature, regardless of its cause, and to eliminate with certainty the possibility of an atomic transition origin. Analysis of stacked galaxy cluster data is currently underway for two other X-ray satellite missions, Chandra and Suzaku. In addition, the astrophysics community eagerly awaits the upcoming Astro-H mission, a Japanese X-ray astronomy satellite planned for launch in 2015. It should be able to not only confirm the 3.56 keV X-ray line (if indeed real), but also detect it within our own Milky Way galaxy.

Thus the hypothesis is for dark matter composed primarily of sterile neutrinos of a little over 7.1 keV in mass (in E = mc^2 terms), and that the sterile neutrino has a decay channel to an X-ray photon and regular neutrino. Each decay product would have an energy of about 3.56 keV. Such a 7 keV sterile neutrino is plausible with respect to the known density of dark matter and various cosmological and particle physics constraints. If the dark matter is primarily due to this sterile neutrino, then it falls into the “warm” dark matter domain, intermediate between “cold” dark matter due to very heavy particles, or “hot” dark matter due to very light particles.

The abundance of dwarf satellite galaxies found in the Milky Way’s neighborhood is lower than predicted from cold dark matter models. Warm dark matter could solve this problem. As Dr. Abazajian puts in in his recent paper “Resonantly Produced 7 keV Sterile Neutrino Dark Matter Models and the Properties of Milky Way Satellites”

the parameters necessary in these models to produce the full dark matter density fulfill previously determined requirements to successfully match the Milky Way galaxy’s total satellite abundance, the satellites’ radial distribution, and their mass density profile..