“One mustn’t look at the abyss, because there is at the bottom an inexpressible charm which attracts us.” –Gustave Flaubert
The deepest depths of space, out beyond our atmosphere, our Solar System, and even our galaxy, hold the richness of the great Universe beyond. Stretching for billions of light years in every direction, there are structures large and small, dense and sparse, everywhere we’ve ever dared to look.
In addition to the visible, luminous matter we see in the image above, there’s both non-luminous normal matter and dark matter. The non-luminous matter is made out of protons, neutrons, and electrons, but doesn’t emit light. This includes things such as gas, dust, planets, and astrophysicists: in other words, most normal matter in the Universe. But when we take everything we know about normal matter, including how much there is of it, how its pulls together under the force of gravity throughout the Universe, we find that there needs to be about five times as much dark matter as all the normal matter combined.
One of the easiest ways to figure this out and measure it is by looking at some chance locations in the Universe where there are two massive structures directly lined up, one-behind-the-other, relative to our line-of-sight.
Above is what happens when you have a galaxy cluster with both a quasar and a background galaxy directly behind it. This result — of multiple images and/or distorted, arcing appearances of the background source(s) — comes about because of gravitational lensing. This intervening mass bends and magnifies the light from the background source, allowing us to see incredibly distant objects that would be otherwise invisible.
It works the other way, too. From the light that we observe from these background objects, we can infer all sorts of things — like the mass and how it’s distributed — of the intervening, foreground object, as well as how perfectly/imperfectly it’s aligned with the background ones.
The results are often breathtaking and, at least to me, always spectacular.
The “horseshoe” above represents a nearly perfect alignment of two sources. Almost perfect, but not quite. If the background and foreground sources were perfectly aligned, the background source would be bend into a uniform-brightness circle — a great cosmic rarity — known as an Einstein ring.
If you could zoom into a nearly-but-not-quite-perfect Einstein ring that was lensed by a black hole, the sight would surely, for as long as you remained an intact being, blow your mind. For what you’d find would be an infinite sequence of these rings, progressively decreasing in brightness, as you approached the event horizon.
But I digress. These Einstein rings are lensed by galaxies, not black holes. The circles they make are never exactly perfect, but some come close. In particular, here’s a (falsely-colored) image of one that was recently discovered. This one is particularly interesting for the sheer distances involved: the foreground galaxy — the one doing the lensing — is a luminous red galaxy located 9.8 billion light years away. But the background galaxy, the one bent into the ring, is an even more spectacular 17.3 billion light years away. And as you’ll notice, it forms a nearly, but not quite, perfect ring.
This system, known as JVAS B1938+666, is much more than just a pretty ring of nearly-perfectly aligned galaxies. You remember, when you form a ring like this, one of the things you’ll learn is how the foreground mass is distributed. In addition to the central, luminous red galaxy, there’s also a dark concentration of mass, a bit off from the center, of about two hundred million Suns.
Incorrectly reported by many as a purely dark matter galaxy, this is simply a standard dwarf galaxy, but it’s so far away that the light from its stars are insufficiently bright to be seen, even with a ten-meter telescope!
So what’s really going on here? You can take a look at the full paper (S. Vegetti et al., 2012) for yourself, but let’s break it down in simple terms, and (hopefully) clear up the confusion surrounding this. Almost everywhere in the Universe, the structure you form is about 80-85% dark matter and 15-20% normal matter.
Everywhere. In our galaxy, in galaxy clusters, even in superclusters on the largest visible scales. In these large objects, the gravitational forces are huge, and the gas, dust, and all the forms of normal matter stay bound to their parent object, no matter what you do to it.
But in dwarf galaxies, the little guys, large bursts of star formation can be so powerful that they can eject normal matter out of the galaxy itself! This allows them to, over time, become galaxies that are even more dark-matter-dominated than other, more massive objects in the Universe. In the image above, I Zwicky 18 is full of young stars, indicating an intense burst of star formation that’s no more than 500 million years old. There are older stars in there, too, which are more like 10 billion years old, but this latest burst, as perhaps the image below shows even more clearly, will turn this galaxy into an even more strongly dark-matter-dominated object in the future.
As this intense burst of star formation happens, bright, hot, young stars form, burn brightly, and die in spectacular supernova explosions. The radiation and outward flux from these objects can heat up and energize the normal, non-luminous matter so thoroughly that it can achieve escape velocity, kicking it out of the dwarf galaxy! What gets left behind are the relic, long-lived stars, the old stellar corpses, and the dark matter.
But what’s really important here is that this is exactly what we know should happen! Despite what you may have read elsewhere, there’s no reason to believe these objects are 100% dark matter, and there’s definitely no reason to believe these observations pose a problem for structure formation. Some people argue that dark matter simulations predict a different density of dwarf galaxies than our Local Group has, and therefore dark matter is wrong. But we have to look at the entire Universe! This one fact does not mean that our Local Group is a good representation of the rest of the Universe; in fact we already know many ways in which it is definitely not! So we go to the paper itself, wherein they’ve found the most distant dwarf galaxy ever, which says:
Our results are consistent with the predictions from cold dark matter simulations at the 95 per cent confidence level, and therefore agree with the view that galaxies formed hierarchically in a Universe composed of cold dark matter.
And this is as close to a definite (12-σ significance!) detection as one could get: see for yourself!
You’re always going to make waves by claiming that you’ve done something sensational, like disproven dark matter or found an object made out of 100% dark matter and 0% normal matter, but that’s not what we have here.
We’ve just discovered, at nearly 10 billion light years away, the most distant low-mass, dwarf galaxy in the Universe. And that should be impressive enough; do you know how hard these things are to find?
The closest galaxy to us, the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy, is about the same size: 1-200 million solar masses, and it took the freakin’ Hubble Space Telescope to take this picture of it! Considering it’s only seventy thousand light years away, maybe we can cut ourselves some slack for not being able to see the starlight from its twin ten billion light years away!
And despite the great cosmic distance, we are still able to find it, all thanks to gravitational lensing. Are you not impressed?