General Astronomy/Current Unsolved Mysteries

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General Astronomy
What People do in Astronomy Current Unsolved Mysteries The Celestial Sphere

Dark Matter and Dark Energy[edit]

Dark Matter is invisible, but has been postulated from its apparent influence on visible matter. It is one explanation for the observed strength of gravity needed to hold galaxies and clusters of galaxies together. Without considerably more mass than can be detected with telescopes, roughly 10 times more, these systems should simply fly apart. The dark matter theory hypothesizes that matter exists that emits little or no radiation and therefore is not observable with telescopes. Dark matter might also be needed to explain the cosmic microwave background (CMB) power spectrum. Some proposals for explaining dark matter are, for example, particles like weakly interacting massive particles (hypothetical WIMPs) or neutrinos, or massive compact halo objects (MACHOS), or ordinary matter that is hidden somehow, or modified gravity (MOND, MOG, f(R)), or some combination of these things.

Another hypothesis, Dark Energy, has been proposed to explain the surprising observation that the expansion of the universe is getting faster. This acceleration of the expansion was discovered by measuring a certain type of supernova, called type Ia, in surveys of galaxies. Type Ia supernova are used since they all have the same absolute brightness. (We will discuss why they have the same absolute brightness, and how they are used to measure distances, in a later chapter, General Astronomy/The Death of High Mass Stars). This makes them very useful for measuring distances. It had been anticipated, before the measurements were made, that the expansion of the universe would be decelerating, due to the gravity of all the matter. Dark energy is postulated to explain the apparent repulsive force pushing things apart. Ongoing research efforts are to measure the expansion rate more accurately, and discover the nature of dark energy.

Dark matter is generally accepted to exist, though questions remain. It is probably not regular matter made of protons and neutrons (baryonic matter). That is because a higher density of ordinary matter during the nuclear reactions occurring in the first few minutes of the universe (known as big bang nucleosynthesis), would be expected to produce different abundances of light elements and their isotopes, like deuterium, than are actually observed. Another problem for ordinary matter is that the "clumpiness" of the observed galaxies and the cosmic background radiation is not what would be expected from predictions. Other considerations tend to disfavor neutrinos as dark matter as well.

Alternatives to the dark matter hypothesis are new forces or modified gravity theories. There is speculation that there is another large-scale force that is keeping our universe together.[citation needed] Another possible explanation is to think of space as a gas-and-space solid. If you place two objects apart from each other then pressurize the area, the two objects will be forced towards each other. This reverses our current ideas of gravity from an object having a pull on other object, to an object being pushed from all directions. (An object alone has no movement, but two objects create an uneven pressure pushing the objects together.)

Dark matter

An estimated 23% of the matter in the universe is dark matter. Ordinary matter only makes up 4% of the universe. The remaining 73% is an even more mysterious, repulsive "dark vacuum energy".

The most popular theory right now is that the repulsive force is actually a property of space itself: it is caused by waves of energy, created by particles and anti-particles popping into existence and then annihilating each other with no net effect. Early in the universe, when there was not much space, the effect was small compared to gravity. But as the galaxies moved apart, the effect became greater. [1]

History and Ideas of Composition

Dark matter was first proposed in 1933 by Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky to explain the orbital motions of galaxies in clusters. He observed that there was apparently a lot more mass in a cluster of galaxies than just the visible objects, like stars, gas, and dust. So there was something unseen adding to the mass of the cluster. Later, when X-ray telescopes became operational, they revealed a cloud of hot hydrogen gas between the galaxies, accounting for part of the missing mass. Beginning in the 1960's, Vera Rubin discovered that contrary to Kepler's law that objects orbiting around a central body move slower the farther away they are, that in fact the orbital speed of stars in galaxies remains roughly the same beyond a certain distance from the galaxy core. So there has to be some extra matter, either in the flat disk of galaxies or in a spherical halo around the galactic core. Building off Zwicky’s work she concluded that this extra mass was dark matter. The term dark matter refers to matter that is perceived to be present because of its effect on the objects around it. While the composition of dark matter is still unknown, scientist have proposed some possible candidates that dark matter could be. They are:

Ionized gas Emits thermal free-free radiation which cannot be observed. Dust Emits radiation and is made up of elements heavier that helium. Main Sequence Stars Could be an ingredient but could not be sole property of dark matter because a great amount of them would be visible. Black Holes are highly unlikely because they would disrupt the binary separations of dark matter. However not much is known about the explosions that produce black holes, so it is still an option. White Dwarfs When forming white dwarfs produce many intermediate-mass elements (He, N, Ne, C, O) or halo gas, which is not visible. Neutrinos Unlikely but they do have enough mass to be a candidate. WIMPS or Cold Dark Matter Weak interacting particles but move at nonrelativistic speeds. A more in depth flow chart depicting how the above suggestions are connected is picture below taken from Modern Cosmological Observations And Problems (140).


The cosmic background radiation was formed when protons and electrons combined to form atoms. The trouble is that we know that the matter between galaxies today is ionized (i.e. it's separate protons and electrons) with clumps of hydrogen atoms. We know this because when we look at all but the most distant galaxies, we don't see the spectra lines of hydrogen. So at some point the hydrogen in the universe reionized. The notion was that starlight caused the hydrogen in the universe to reionize, but the latest observations seem to indicate that this reionization occurred before the first stars were there.

Galaxy Formation[edit]

The idea is that galaxies started from tiny fluctuations in density that formed after the big bang. By assuming that the universe consists mainly of cold dark matter, you can almost get the clumpliness that you see with the current galaxies. But there are still puzzles. There is an annoying lack of tiny galaxies, and the rotation curve that cold dark matter predicts, isn't quite the one that we see.

Before the Big Bang[edit]

Now to get really speculative, there have been some papers written recently that try to figure out what happened before the Big Bang. One of the strange ideas is that the universe is merely one plane in a multidimensional space, and that what happened was that two membranes in a multidimensional space collided causing a massive expansion in three of the dimensions. This is all really speculative, but the weird thing is that it isn't totally disconnected from observation. The idea is that you can use this model to predict the initial expansion of the universe, and this might have some effects on the ripples that you see in the cosmic microwave background. The big problem is that the matter that began expanding had to have always existed, yet, because of the predictable nature of the elements, it had to have had a definite, external force to set it in motion that could decide when to start the "chain reaction". Something cannot just be in a stable form, or even an unstable form, forever and finally explode, it has to go in a cycle. In other words, consider the following. Out of nothing, a theretofore nonexistent dense mass spontaneously emerged, which erupted in an enormously powerful fireball by its own theretofore nonexistent energy to spontaneously and immediately create from this chaos the defined fundamental forces of physics and the subatomic fundamental particles, which eventually organized themselves into a variety of atomic species, then into molecules, and then into a diverse assortment of inorganic matter that gravitationally assembled itself into this highly structured and precisely ordered universe. We all know that this is ridiculous, but it is equally ridiculous to say "a theretofore stable mass spontaneously became unstable".

With all of these puzzles, its not clear what is going to happen next. There is a lot of data coming in, and it may be that with new data, it will be possible to make our models of the universe work with minor tweaks here and there, and we can go on in the mode of what Kuhn calls "normal science." It's also possible that one day there will be some observation which is like Galileo seeing the phases of Venus. Some observation that makes absolutely no sense in the current paradigm of things, and this will force people to fundamentally change how we view the universe.

Discussion Questions[edit]

1) Find an old astronomy textbook, and compare it with a very recent one. What mysteries in the old astronomy textbook are now believed to be resolved, and what facts and statements in the old astronomy textbook are now believed to be incorrect?

General Astronomy
What People do in Astronomy Current Unsolved Mysteries The Celestial Sphere