Space Station Info :: Research and Technology
Dark Matter Goes Missing in Oddball Galaxy
Galaxies and dark matter go together like peanut butter and jelly. You typically don't find one without the other. Therefore, researchers were surprised when they uncovered a galaxy that is missing most, if not all, of its dark matter. An invisible substance, dark matter is the underlying scaffolding upon which galaxies are built. It's the glue that holds the visible matter in galaxies — stars and gas — together.
"We thought that every galaxy had dark matter and that dark matter is how a galaxy begins," said Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, lead researcher of the Hubble observations. "This invisible, mysterious substance is the most dominant aspect of any galaxy. So finding a galaxy without it is unexpected. It challenges the standard ideas of how we think galaxies work, and it shows that dark matter is real: it has its own separate existence apart from other components of galaxies. This result also suggests that there may be more than one way to form a galaxy."
The unique galaxy, called NGC 1052-DF2, contains at most 1/400th the amount of dark matter that astronomers had expected. The galaxy is as large as our Milky Way, but it had escaped attention because it contains only 1/200th the number of stars. Given the object's large size and faint appearance, astronomers classify NGC 1052-DF2 as an ultra-diffuse galaxy. A 2015 survey of the Coma galaxy cluster showed these large, faint objects to be surprisingly common. But none of the ultra-diffuse galaxies discovered so far have been found to be lacking in dark matter. So even among this unusual class of galaxy, NGC 1052-DF2 is an oddball.
Van Dokkum and his team spotted the galaxy with the Dragonfly Telephoto Array, a custom-built telescope in New Mexico they designed to find these ghostly galaxies. They then used the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to measure the motions of 10 giant groupings of stars called globular clusters in the galaxy. Keck revealed that the globular clusters were moving at relatively low speeds, less than 23,000 miles per hour. Stars and clusters in the outskirts of galaxies containing dark matter move at least three times faster. From those measurements, the team calculated the galaxy's mass. The researchers next used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii to uncover more details about the unique galaxy. Gemini revealed that the galaxy does not show signs of an interaction with another galaxy. Hubble helped them better identify the globular clusters and measure an accurate distance to the galaxy. The Hubble images also revealed the galaxy's unusual appearance.
But the researchers do have some ideas. NGC 1052-DF2 resides about 65 million light-years away in a collection of galaxies that is dominated by the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 1052. Galaxy formation is turbulent and violent, and van Dokkum suggests that the growth of the fledgling massive galaxy billions of years ago perhaps played a role in NGC 1052-DF2's dark-matter deficiency. Another idea is that gas moving toward the giant elliptical NGC 1052 may have fragmented and formed NGC 1052-DF2. The formation of NGC 1052-DF2 may have been helped by powerful winds emanating from the young black hole that was growing in the center of NGC 1052. These possibilities are speculative, however, and don't explain all of the characteristics of the observed galaxy, the researchers said.