Dark Matter is Out There

Dark matter has been discovered. We know from measurements of the relic abundance of light elements that were generated just minutes after the Big Bang that the known, baryonic, matter is not sufficient to explain the energy-matter density of the Universe today. A cold dark matter component has been measured from the incredibly accurate observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background, which was emitted just 300,000 years after the Big Bang. And dark matter must exist in order to turn the tiny fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background into the huge density fluctuations that are observed in the Universe today.

Our Milky Way

Our Milky Way contains much more mass in the form of the mysterious dark matter than meets the eye. Picture by Thomas Tuchan.

Gravitational lensing and dispersion measurements of galaxy clusters, the largest bound systems that have been observed, show that dark matter is the dominating mass component. Detailed studies of half a dozen or so merging galaxy clusters have clearly ruled out possible alternative explanations involving modifications of the gravitational law, and are now starting to probe the properties of dark matter itself. We also know that dark matter exists in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, which shows rotational velocities that are independent of radius at high radii, just as in any other spiral galaxy we observe. This flat rotation curve is clearly inconsistent with that expected from Kepler’s laws but is naturally explained by the fact that galaxies are immersed in a halo of dark matter that dominates their mass.

Taken together, we have discovered dark matter with independent measurements spanning vast time scales from a few minutes after the Big Bang all the way to today, and at length scales from the Cosmos as a whole to individual galaxies. Yet, what dark matter is made out of remains entirely unknown. Thus, research into the nature of dark matter is of utmost importance to our view of the Cosmos. It is pursued with a variety of diverse approaches that test dark matter interactions with other known particles, with itself, and at a range of different energies.

Dark matter can be expected to have couplings, albeit weak, to standard matter, so that it can be searched for with laboratory experiments. This direct search for dark matter is pursued with a variety of complementary technologies and experiments. The XENON project in particular is one of the most sensitive direct searches for dark matter.