|Maps of gamma rays from the center of the Milky Way galaxy, before (left) and after signals from known sources were removed, reveal an excess that is consistent with the distribution of dark matter.|
Not long after the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope took to the sky in 2008, astrophysicists noticed that it was picking up a steady rain of gamma rays pouring outward from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. This high-energy radiation was consistent with the detritus of annihilating dark matter, the unidentified particles that constitute 84 percent of the matter in the universe and that fizzle upon contact with each other, spewing other particles as they go. If the gamma rays did in fact come from dark matter, they would reveal its identity, resolving one of the biggest mysteries in physics. But some argued that the gamma rays could have originated from another source.
Now a new analysis of the signal claims to rule out all other plausible explanations and makes the case that the gamma rays trace back to a type of particle that has long been considered the leading dark matter candidate — a weakly interacting massive particle, or WIMP. Meanwhile, a more tentative X-ray signal reported in two other new studies suggests the existence of yet another kind of dark matter particle called a sterile neutrino.
In the new gamma-ray analysis, which appeared Feb. 27 on the scientific preprint site arXiv.org, Dan Hooper and his collaborators used more than five years’ worth of the cleanest Fermi data to generate a high-resolution map of the gamma-ray excess extending from the center of the galaxy outward at least 10 angular degrees, or 5,000 light-years, in all directions.
“The results are extremely interesting,” said Kevork Abazajian, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. “The most remarkable part of the analysis is that the signal follows the shape of the dark matter profile out to 10 degrees,” he said, explaining that it would be “very difficult to impossible” for other sources to mimic this predicted dark matter distribution over such a broad range.
The findings do not constitute a discovery of dark matter, the scientists said, but they prepare the way for an upcoming test described by many researchers as a “smoking gun”: If the gamma-ray excess comes from annihilating WIMPs, and not conventional astrophysical objects, then the signal will also be seen emanating from dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way — diffuse objects that are rich in dark matter but not in other high-energy photon sources such as pulsars, rotating neutron stars that have been floated as alternative explanations for the excess.
Quanta Magazine: Case for Dark Matter Signal Strengthens