New Research Sheds Light on Cosmos

Our galaxy has a disc of so-called dark matter that pervades it, a finding that could help unlock direct observation of this strange substance, a new study suggests.

Mooted as a theory 75 years ago but discovered only recently through indirect evidence, dark matter accounts for around 22 percent of the mass of the Universe, scientists believe. An equally enigmatic phenomenon called dark energy accounts for 74 percent, and visible matter only four percent.

Until now, the main theory was that dark matter encircled the Milky Way like a lumpy halo.

But an international team of scientists on Tuesday said that such calculations are based only on the gravitational influence of dark matter alone, and not on the gravitational pull of other stuff, such as the stars and gas.

In a paper published by Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society, the team calculate that if the wider factors are taken into account, a thin but extensive disk of dark matter runs across our galaxy.

“The dark disk only has about half of the density of the dark matter halo, which is why no-one has spotted it before,” said lead researcher Justin Read of the University of Zurich, Switzerland.

“However, despite its low density, if the disk exists, it has dramatic implications for the detection of dark matter.”

The existence of dark matter has been surmised indirectly, through the gravitational pull it exerts on light from distant stars and galaxies. But getting direct confirmation of it has been a headache.

One theory is that dark matter comprises particles. One candidate is called a WIMP, for Weakly Interacting Massive Particle.

Several attempts have been made to spot WIMPs and other candidates for dark matter by placing exotic elements, such as germanium and xenon, as detectors in deep mines.

The idea is if the detector gets hit by a racing interstellar WIMP there will be a flash of light.

None, though, has thrown up anything. But the new work could help the hunt.

The Earth and Sun move at around 220 kilometers per second along a nearly circular orbit relative to the centre of the Milky Way.
As the dark matter halo does not rotate, from our perspective, it feels as if there is a “wind” of dark matter flowing towards us at great speed.

In contrast, the dark matter disk moves slower than the halo.

It co-rotates with the Earth, with the result that its WIMPs are a lot slower when they hit our planet.

This could be a boon, because slow-moving WIMPs – or whatever particle comprises dark matter – are likelier to cause a flash than fast-moving ones when the next generation of detectors comes on line.

Current detectors are unable to distinguish the slowcoaches from other background “noise”.

If this hypothesis is right, dark matter could be directly detected “in the very near future,” the RAS said in a press release.
Another avenue of exploration has been thrown up by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which began operations last Wednesday near Geneva.

Physicists hope that the LHC may show up novel subatomic particles, including so-called symmetric particles, when it smashes protons together at top speed from next year.

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