Dark matter is MIA in this strange galaxy

Given its size, the galaxy should have 300 times more dark matter than normal matter

galaxy NGC1052–DF2

DARK DEFICIENCY  Dark matter is unexpectedly absent from the galaxy NGC1052–DF2 (central ghostly blob), an ultradiffuse galaxy about 65 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Cetus.

P. van Dokkum, R. Abraham, STScI

MISSING: Dark matter.

Mass: About 60 billion suns’ worth.

Location: The galaxy NGC1052–DF2, about 65 million light-years from Earth.

An unusual galaxy is surprisingly lacking in dark matter, scientists report March 28 in Nature.

In typical galaxies, normal matter is swamped by dark matter, an unidentified invisible substance that makes up most of the matter in the universe. The existence of dark matter explains the unexpectedly fast speeds at which stars swirl around galaxies, and how galaxies move within clusters.

But one galaxy, NGC1052–DF2, appears to have less dark matter than normal matter, or potentially none at all. Given its mass — it holds stars with about 200 million times the mass of the sun — it would be expected to have about 300 times as much dark matter as normal matter. That adds up to about 60 billion times the sun’s mass in missing dark matter.

Using observations from several telescopes, Yale University astronomer Pieter van Dokkum and colleagues studied 10 bright clumps of stars within the galaxy, known as globular clusters, and measured their velocities. The more mass there is in the galaxy, the faster the clusters should move around it. So if dark matter were present, the clusters should cruise at a relatively rapid clip. Instead, the clusters were moving slowly, indicating a dark matter–free zone.

In most galaxies, stars move faster than naïvely expected, which suggests dark matter lurks within them, providing an extra source of mass. Most physicists believe dark matter is an undetected type of particle. But some think that the hint of extra matter might be a mirage, caused by an incomplete understanding of the workings of gravity. These researchers favor a theory known as modified Newtonian dynamics, or MOND (SN: 3/31/07, p. 206), which adjusts the rules of gravity to make sense of stars’ motions, without requiring any new, elusive particles.

The new study, says van Dokkum, bolsters the idea that dark matter is real, instead of an illusion. “Until now, whenever we saw a galaxy, we also saw dark matter,” says van Dokkum. “We didn’t know for sure whether dark matter and galaxies were two separable things.”

Because MOND proposes tweaking the laws of physics, then — if correct — its effects should be felt in every galaxy across the cosmos. That makes it hard for MOND to explain the unusually slow speeds of the star clusters in NGC1052–DF2.

“It’s intriguing, but it’s not something I’m going to lose sleep over,” says Stacy McGaugh, an astrophysicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He studies MOND and thinks the theory might still be able to explain this galaxy. That’s because NGC1052–DF2 is nestled close to another galaxy. That other galaxy could alter MOND’s predictions, perhaps explaining why the star clusters move slowly. The effect of that proximity needs to be taken into account to determine if MOND can explain the observations, he says.

Still, McGaugh acknowledges that NGC1052–DF2 is problematic for MOND. But it is also problematic for the standard dark matter picture, he says, as it’s not clear how such a galaxy could form in the first place. Most galaxies are thought to form around clumps of dark matter, so a galaxy devoid of the stuff is hard to explain.

NGC1052–DF2 is unusual in other ways. It’s a faint, ghostly blob known as an ultradiffuse galaxy. Although about the same volume as the Milky Way, NGC1052–DF2 contains many fewer stars. Scientists are struggling to understand why such galaxies look so different from most others (SN: 12/10/16, p. 18). Finding an ultradiffuse galaxy without dark matter further complicates the puzzle.

If scientists can explain how the galaxy formed, it might improve understanding of the properties of dark matter. “In physics we always want to find really extreme laboratories to test theories and ideas,” says astrophysicist James Bullock of the University of California, Irvine. This galaxy is extreme indeed.

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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