The Case of the Missing Dark Matter

Galaxy without any dark matter baffles astronomers

When observing a collection of galaxies called the NGC 1052 group, the array spotted an object that had shown up in other surveys of that region of the sky.

A galaxy far, far away is perplexing astronomers not because of what it contains, but because of what it doesn't: dark matter.

To see whether this is the case with NGC1052-DF2, the researchers used the Keck telescope to image some of the structures that appeared to be present within the galaxy (the objects appeared to be bright versions of the globular clusters seen in other galaxies, including our own). "I spent an hour just staring at this image", van Dokkum said as he recalled first seeing the Hubble image of NGC 1052-DF2. "This thing is astonishing", said team member Pieter van Dokkum, "a enormous blob that you can look through". It's a literally a transparent galaxy. Some of them appear to be normal galaxies that were stripped of most of their stars and gas by interactions with other members of the cluster, leaving them incredibly dark-matter rich.

On the off chance that astronomers truly have discovered an "undark" galaxy, it's a solid piece of information that dark matter is genuine. "There must be more than one way to form galaxies". Weird and invisible, dark matter has not been directly observed-no one is sure what it is, exactly-but it is key to explaining the movement of galaxies in space. "There is no theory that predicts these types of galaxies - how you actually go about forming one of these things is completely unknown", says co-author Allison Merritt from Yale University.

This discovery makes all the current theories on the distribution of dark matter and its influence on galaxy formation redundant or partly false. "Now it seems that at least some galaxies exist with lots of stars and gas and hardly any dark matter". NGC 1052-DF2 is considered to be some 10 billion years old. That would only make sense if there was no dark matter at all acting on them, a finding confirmed when the researchers subsequently calculated the mass of the galaxy.

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"We really thought that this is the essence of what a galaxy is, that galaxies are built from, initially, a bunch of dark matter and that all the stars and all the planets and everything else is just a little frost on top", van Dokkum added. So the enigma of NGC 1052-DF2, may not be an enigma for long. At the observatory William Myron Keck on the island of Hawaii, they measured the mass of this galaxy.

The galaxy is located 63 million light-years away from our Milky Way. But how it formed is a complete mystery. If it has no dark matter, how did it even evolve into a galaxy? Indeed, if the mass of DF2 is equal to the sum of the masses of its stars, gas, and dust, it's because it contains no or nearly no dark matter!

Dark matter is believed to exist because of its gravitational effects on visible matter in the cosmos. This study was published in Nature.

About a year ago, University of Waterloo researchers captured a composite image that strongly supports the existence of dark matter.

Stacy McGaugh, an astrophysicist at Case Western Reserve University in OH who has worked on both dark matter and MOND and did not work on the paper, disagreed with the idea that this galaxy refutes MOND or bolsters the case for dark matter. Future observatories under construction, such as the European Extremely Large Telescope in Chile's Atacama Desert, or NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, should be able to take such measurements.

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