Astronomers have created the largest map yet of the mysterious, invisible substance called dark matter that makes up nearly a quarter of the universe.
The map is a result from the Dark Energy Survey (DES) study that astronomers hope will reveal more about the role that dark matter plays in the formation of new galaxies.
To create the map to the right, astronomers used one of the world’s most powerful digital cameras perched on a mountain top in Chile (far away from any Earth-based interference) and scanned about two million galaxies. Dark matter is invisible but scientists can still “see” it and create maps like this by observing how its gravitational force bends light around galaxies.
This map is the largest contiguous picture of dark matter that we have, but it still only represents about 3% of the sky.
Visible matter, the parts of the cosmos that we can actually see, seems to only make up about 5% of the whole universe. So there’s a lot more mass to every galaxy than meets the eye. Some of that extra mass seems to be tied up in dark matter.
You can tell from the map that more galaxies are clustered around areas that have a high concentration of dark matter. This backs up the theory that galaxies tend to form in areas where there is more dark matter, and therefore a stronger gravitational force.
In the map below, which has been adorned with cutouts of the regions spotlighted, you can see that areas with high concentrations of dark matter (the top two red spots) seem to have more galaxies, and the areas where the concentration of dark matter is lower (the bottom blue spot) resembles a cosmic void.
While these maps only show a small section of the sky, studying the distribution of dark matter will reveal more about another mysterious force in the cosmos: dark energy. Dark energy is the force that astronomers believe is causing the universe to expand at a pace that keeps on accelerating.
DES will also keep an eye on how many galaxies we can see around us. Monitoring how this number changes over time will reveal more about how dark energy is fuelling the expansion of the universe.
Researchers are planning on releasing bigger and better maps as they collect more data.
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