Scientists mapped dark matter around galaxies in the early universe

The 1.5 million galaxies appear as they were 12 billion years ago

illustration that shows light (white lines) from the cosmic microwave background (in orange and blue) passing through other galaxies (in purple) on its way to Earth

Light from the cosmic microwave background (right, illustrated in orange and blue) passed by distant galaxies (purple) on its way to Earth. The gravity of those galaxies bent that light (white lines), revealing their distribution of dark matter.

Reiko Matsushita

Scientists have mapped out the dark matter around some of the earliest, most distant galaxies yet.

The 1.5 million galaxies appear as they were 12 billion years ago, or less than 2 billion years after the Big Bang. Those galaxies distort the cosmic microwave background — light emitted during an even earlier era of the universe — as seen from Earth. That distortion, called gravitational lensing, reveals the distribution of dark matter around those galaxies, scientists report in the Aug. 5 Physical Review Letters.

Understanding how dark matter collects around galaxies early in the universe’s history could tell scientists more about the mysterious substance. And in the future, this lensing technique could also help scientists unravel a mystery about how matter clumps together in the universe.

Dark matter is an unknown, massive substance that surrounds galaxies. Scientists have never directly detected dark matter, but they can observe its gravitational effects on the cosmos (SN: 7/22/22). One of those effects is gravitational lensing: When light passes by a galaxy, its mass bends the light like a lens. How much the light bends reveals the mass of the galaxy, including its dark matter.

It’s difficult to map dark matter around such distant galaxies, says cosmologist Hironao Miyatake of Nagoya University in Japan. That’s because scientists need a source of light that is farther away than the galaxy acting as the lens. Typically, scientists use even more distant galaxies as the source of that light. But when peering this deep into space, those galaxies are difficult to come by.

So instead, Miyatake and colleagues turned to the cosmic microwave background, the oldest light in the universe. The team used measurements of lensing of the cosmic microwave background from the Planck satellite, combined with a multitude of distant galaxies observed by the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii (SN: 7/24/18). “The gravitational lensing effect is very small, so we need a lot of lens galaxies,” Miyatake says. The distribution of dark matter around the galaxies matched expectations, the researchers report.

The researchers also estimated a quantity called sigma-8, a measure of how “clumpy” matter is in the cosmos. For years, scientists have found hints that different measurements of sigma-8 disagree with one another (SN: 8/10/20). That could be a hint that something is wrong with scientists’ theories of the universe. But the evidence isn’t conclusive.

“One of the most interesting things in cosmology right now is whether that tension is real or not,” says cosmologist Risa Wechsler of Stanford University, who was not involved with the study. “This is a really nice example of one of the techniques that will help shed light on that.”

Measuring sigma-8 using early, distant galaxies could help reveal what’s going on. “You want to measure this quantity, this sigma-8, from as many perspectives as possible,” says cosmologist Hendrik Hildebrandt of Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, who was not involved with the study.

If estimates from different eras of the universe disagree with one another, that might help physicists craft a new theory that could better explain the cosmos. While the new measurement of sigma-8 isn’t precise enough to settle the debate, future projects, such as the Rubin Observatory in Chile, could improve the estimate (SN: 1/10/20).

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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