Dark Matter

What is it?

Roughly 80 percent of the mass of the universe is made up of material that scientists cannot directly observe. Known as dark matter, this bizarre ingredient does not emit light or energy.

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History

Studies of other galaxies in the 1950s first indicated that the universe contained more matter than seen by the naked eye. Support for dark matter has grown, and although no solid direct evidence of dark matter has been detected, there have been strong possibilities in recent years.The missing matter could simply be more challenging to detect, made up of regular, baryonic matter. Potential candidates include dim brown dwarfs, white dwarfs and neutrino stars. Supermassive black holes could also be part of the difference. But these hard-to-spot objects would have to play a more dominant role than scientists have observed to make up the missing mass, while other elements suggest that dark matter is more exotic.
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What is it?

Most scientists think that dark matter is composed of non-baryonic matter. The lead candidate, WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles), have ten to a hundred times the mass of a proton, but their weak interactions with "normal" matter make them difficult to detect. Neutralinos, massive hypothetical particles heavier and slower than neutrinos, are the foremost candidate, though they have yet to be spotted. The smaller neutral axion and the uncharched photinos are also potential placeholders for dark matter.
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How do we know?

Scientists calculate the mass of large objects in space by studying their motion. Astronomers examining spiral galaxies in the 1950s expected to see material in the center moving faster than on the outer edges. Instead, they found the stars in both locations traveled at the same velocity, indicating the galaxies contained more mass than could be seen. Studies of the gas within elliptical galaxies also indicated a need for more mass than found in visible objects. Clusters of galaxies would fly apart if the only mass they contained were visible to conventional astronomical measurements

What about dark energy?

Although dark matter makes up most of the matter of the universe, it only makes up about a quarter of the composition. The universe is dominated by dark energy. After the Big Bang, the universe began expanding outward. Scientists thought that it would eventually run out of the energy, slowing down as gravity pulled the objects inside it together. But studies of distant supernovae revealed that the universe today is expanding faster than it was in the past, not slower, indicating that the expansion is accelerating. This would only be possible if the universe contained enough energy to overcome gravity, dark energy.