Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky first proposed dark matter in the 1930s. He found that clusters of galaxies were filled with a mysterious dark matter that kept them from flying apart. At nearly the same time, Jan Oort in the Netherlands discovered that the density of matter near the Sun was nearly twice what could be explained by the presence of stars and gas alone.
In the intervening decades, astronomers developed a theory of dark matter and structure formation that explains the properties of clusters and galaxies in the universe, but the amount of dark matter in the solar neighborhood has remained more mysterious. For decades after Oort’s measurement, studies found three to six times more dark matter than expected. Then last year new data and a new method claimed far less than expected. The community was left puzzled, generally believing that the observations and analyzes simply weren’t sensitive enough to perform a reliable measurement.
In this latest study, the astronomers are more confident in their measurement and its uncertainties. This is because they used a state-of-the-art simulation of our galaxy to test their mass-measuring technique before applying it to real data. This threw up a number of surprises. They found that standard techniques used over the past 20 years were biased, always tending to underestimate the amount of dark matter. They then devised a new unbiased technique that recovered the correct answer from the simulated data. Applying their technique to the positions and velocities of thousands of orange K dwarf stars near the Sun, they obtained a new measure of the local dark matter density.
“We are 99 percent confident that there is dark matter near the Sun,” said Silvia Garbari from the University of Zürich. “In fact, our favored dark matter density is a little high. There is a 10 percent chance that this is merely a statistical fluke. But with 90 percent confidence, we find more dark matter than expected. If future data confirms this high value, the implications are exciting. It could be the first evidence for a disk of dark matter in our galaxy, as recently predicted by theory and numerical simulations of galaxy formation. Or it could be that the dark matter halo of our galaxy is squashed, boosting the local dark matter density.”
Many physicists are placing their bets on dark matter being a new fundamental particle that interacts only weakly with normal matter — but strongly enough to be detected in experiments deep underground where confusing cosmic-ray events are screened by over a mile of solid rock.
An accurate measure of the local dark matter density is vital for such experiments. “If dark matter is a fundamental particle, billions of these particles will have passed through your body by the time you finish reading this article,” said George Lake from ETH Zürich. “Experimental physicists hope to capture just a few of these particles each year in experiments like XENON and CDMS currently in operation. Knowing the local properties of dark matter is the key to revealing just what kind of particle it consists of.”