NASA, ESA, M.J. Jee and H. Ford (Johns Hopkins University)
The ring of darkness in the galaxy cluster Cl 0024+17 indicates the presence of dark matter. New research explores the possibility that dark matter is made up of particles that weigh about as much as a human cell.
Image: Artist's impression of the Huygens pro
10. Saturn Moon Titan Explored
On Jan. 14, 2005, the European Space Agency's Huygens probe dropped through Titan's atmosphere after a seven-year trek attached to NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Huygens wasn't designed to live for very long after atmospheric reentry, but it unveiled a mysterious outer solar system world to us for the first time. Before this mission, very little was known about Saturn's largest moon, and scientists were unsure whether Huygens would land on a rocky surface or in an ocean. Titan's thick atmosphere -- composed of primarily nitrogen and clouds of methane and ethane, about 50 percent thicker than our atmosphere -- signaled to scientists that Titan was similar to a young Earth. Observations from the Huygens probe and Cassini spacecraft tell us that Titan and Earth share many features, such as sand dunes and lakes. But these features are heavily laced with organic molcules that could support life, leading researchers to speculate about Titan's potential to nurture microbes.
Image: The cratered surface of the moon (NASA
9. Moon Water Confirmed
India's Chandrayaan-1 satellite confirmed the presence of water on the moon in September 2009, building on flyby observations by other probes on their way elsewhere. Although the lunar surface is still drier than Earth's driest desert, evidence of water is there, hinting at a solar wind interaction with the moon's surface that produces water and hydroxyl molecules. It may not be an oasis up there, but future moon colonists could extract and purify the traces of water from the surface to use for drinking, food cultivation, oxygen and fuel. Or, our colonists could take a trek to the moon's poles to mine water from the deepest craters On Oct. 9, 2009, NASA dropped a spent rocket into a crater to produce a 100-foot-wide hole. They found water there too. That rocket produced a massive plume of dust that was analyzed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and ground-based observatories. At least 25 gallons of water ice was detected in the plume.
Image: Artist's impression of Comet Tempel 1
8. Organic Chemistry Collected from Comet's Tail
In 2004, the NASA Stardust mission chased after Comet Wild 2 to find out if the icy mass contained the building blocks for life, since meteorites found on Earth contained organic chemistry that originated from space. Sure enough, in August 2009, NASA announced that they had found samples of glycine -- an amino acid -- in Stardust's collection plates. It didn't stop there, there's increasing evidence that exoplanets orbiting distant stars contain organic chemistry in their atmospheres. In 2008, organic chemicals were detected in the disk surrounding a star called HR 4796A, 220 light-years from Earth. And most recently, NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes detected carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor in the atmosphere of an exoplanet called HD 209458b. These discoveries, sparked by Stardust, have transformed our understanding about how life may have formed on Earth. They also give us a strong hint that life may not be unique to Earth; the universe appears to be manufacturing organic chemistry everywhere.
Image: X-ray observastion of the center of ou
7. A Supermassive Black Hole on Our Doorstep
There's a monster living in the center of our galaxy, 26,000 light-years from Earth. By 2008, astronomers tracking the behavior of stars orbiting an invisible point confirmed that the monster is a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*. A lone star called "S2," with a very fast orbit, has been tracked since 1995 around this invisible point. In 2002, Rainer Schödel and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics announced that the only explanation for S2's fast orbit was that it was circling a very compact, massive object -- a supermassive black hole -- that was stopping the star from flinging out of its orbit into space. In 2008, after S2 completed one 16-year orbit, it was confirmed that the star was orbiting a black hole with a gargantuan mass of approximately 4.3 million suns. The confirmation of a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way boosted the theory that most galaxies contain a supermassive black hole at their cores.
Image: A WMAP map of variations in microwave
6. Big Bang "Echo" Mapped for the First Time
In June 2001, NASA set out to find the ancient "echo" of the Big Bang by mapping the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation that buzzes like static throughout the cosmos, using the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) . When the universe was born, vast amounts of energy were unleashed, which eventually condensed into the stuff that makes up the mass of what we see today. The radiation that was created by the Big Bang still exists, but as faint microwaves. By mapping slight variations in the CMB radiation, the probe has been able to precisely measure the age of the universe (13.73 billion years old) and work out that a huge 96 percent of the mass of the universe is made up of stuff we cannot see. Only 4 percent of the cosmic mass is held in the stars and galaxies we observe; the rest is held in "dark energy" and "dark matter."
Image: A Type Ia supernova explodes in the ou
5. Hubble Gets to Grips with Dark Energy
In 2002, the Hubble Space Telescope was upgraded with a new instrument, the Advanced Camera for Surveys, that revealed the presence of a mysterious force called "dark energy." The camera was set up to help researchers understand why Type Ia supernovae were dimmer than expected. Hubble's observations of these supernovae discovered that they weren't dimmer because the stars were different (they should all explode with the same brightness). The only explanation was that the universe's expansion was unexpectedly and inexplicably speeding up. This accelerated expansion was making the light dim over vast cosmic distances. Hubble's discovery led to a better understanding of what dark energy is -- an invisible force that opposes gravity, causing the universe's expansion to speed up. WATCH VIDEO about Hubble's most recent upgrade.
Image: Artist's impression of Eris and moon D
4. Eris Discovered; Pluto Demoted
In January 2005, Mike Brown and his team at Palomar Observatory, Calif. discovered 136199 Eris, a minor body that is 27 percent bigger than Pluto. Eris had trumped Pluto and become the 9th largest body known to orbit the sun. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) decided that the likelihood of finding more small rocky bodies in the outer solar system was so high that the definition "a planet" needed to be reconsidered. The end result: Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet and it acquired a "minor planet designator" in front of its name: "134340 Pluto." WATCH VIDEO about Pluto's demotion to a minor planet. Mike Brown's 2005 discovery of Eris was the trigger that changed the face of our solar system, defining the planets and adding Pluto to a growing family of dwarf planets.
Image: The Bullet Nebula (NASA)
3. Dark Matter Detected
In the summer of 2006, astronomers made an announcement that helped humans understand the cosmos a little better: They had direct evidence confirming the existence of dark matter -- even though they still can't say what exactly the stuff is. The unprecedented evidence came from the careful weighing of gas and stars flung about in the head-on smash-up between two great clusters of galaxies in the Bullet Cluster. Until then, the existence of dark matter was inferred by the fact that galaxies have only one-fifth of the visible matter needed to create the gravity that keeps them intact. So the rest must be invisible to telescopes: That unseen matter is "dark." The observations of the Bullet Cluster, officially known as galaxy cluster 1E0657-56, did not explain what dark matter is. They did, however, give researchers hints that dark matter particles act a certain way, which they can build on. -- Larry O'Hanlon
Image: The red surface of Mars, plus Phoenix'
2. Mars Surface Gives up Signs of Water
In 2008, NASA's Mars Phoenix lander touched down on the Red Planet to confirm the presence of water and seek out signs of organic compounds. Eight years before, the Mars Global Surveyor spotted what appeared to be gullies carved into the landscape by flowing water. More recently, the Mars Expedition Rovers have uncovered minerals that also indicated the presence of ancient water. But proof of modern-day water was illusive. Then Phoenix, planted on the ground near the North Pole, did some digging for samples to analyze. During one dig, the onboard cameras spotted a white powder in the freshly dug soil. In comparison images taken over the coming days, the powder slowly vanished. After intense analysis, the white powder was confirmed as water ice. This discovery not only confirmed the presence of water on the Red Planet, it reenergized the hope that some kind of microbial life might be using this water supply to survive.
Image: Hubble's optical light view of of the
1. Alien Planets Spotted Directly
The first alien planets -- called exoplanets -- were being detected in the early 1990s, but not directly. In 2000, astronomers detected a handful by looking for a star's "wobble," or a star's slight dimming as the exoplanet passed in front of it. Today we know of 400 exoplanets. In 2008, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope and the infrared Keck and Gemini observatories in Hawaii announced that they had "seen" exoplanets orbiting distant stars. The two observatories had taken images of these alien worlds. The Keck observation was the infrared detection of three exoplanets orbiting a star called HR8799, 150 light-years from Earth. Hubble spotted one massive exoplanet orbiting the star Fomalhaut, 25 light-years from Earth. These finds pose a profound question: How long will it be until we spot an Earth-like world with an extraterrestrial civilization looking back at us?
Dark matter could be made of particles that each weigh almost as much as a human cell and are nearly dense enough to become miniature black holes, new research suggests.
While dark matter is thought to make up five-sixths of all matter in the universe, scientists don't know what this strange stuff is made of. True to its name, dark matter is invisible — it does not emit, reflect or even block light. As a result, dark matter can currently be studied only through its gravitational effects on normal matter. The nature of dark matter is currently one of the greatest mysteries in science.
If dark matter is made of such superheavy particles, astronomers could detect evidence of them in the afterglow of the Big Bang, the authors of a new research study said. [Dark Matter Explained (Infographic)]
Previous dark matter research has mostly ruled out all known ordinary materials as candidates for what makes up this mysterious stuff. Gravitational effects attributed to dark matter include the orbital motions of galaxies: The combined mass of the visible matter in a galaxy, such as stars and gas clouds, cannot account for a galaxy's motion, so an additional, invisible mass must be present. The consensus so far among scientists is that this missing mass is made up of a new species of particles that interact only very weakly with ordinary matter. These new particles would exist outside the Standard Model of particle physics, which is the best current description of the subatomic world.
Some dark matter models suggest that this cosmic substance is made of weakly interacting massive particles, or WIMPs, that are thought to be about 100 times the mass of a proton, said study co-author McCullen Sandora, a cosmologist at the University of Southern Denmark. However, despite many searches, researchers have not conclusively detected any WIMPs so far, leaving open the possibility that dark matter particles could be made of something significantly different.
Now Sandora and his colleagues are exploring the upper mass limit of dark matter — that is, they're trying to discover just how massive these individual particles could possibly be, based on what scientists know about them. In this new model, known as Planckian interacting dark matter, each of the weakly interacting particles weighs about 1019 or 10 billion billion times more than a proton, or "about as heavy as a particle can be before it becomes a miniature black hole," Sandora told Space.com.
A particle that is 1019 the mass of a proton weighs about 1 microgram. In comparison, research suggests that a typical human cell weighs about 3.5 micrograms.
The genesis of the idea for these supermassive particles "began with a feeling of despondency that the ongoing efforts to produce or detect WIMPs don't seem to be yielding any promising clues," Sandora said. "We can't rule out the WIMP scenario yet, but with each passing year, it's getting more and more suspect that we haven't been able to achieve this yet. In fact, so far there have been no definitive hints that there is any new physics beyond the Standard Model at any accessible energy scales, so we were driven to think of the ultimate limit to this scenario."
This illustration, taken from computer simulations, shows a swarm of dark matter clumps around our Milky Way galaxy. J. Tumlinson (STScI)
At first, Sandora and his colleagues regarded their idea as little more than a curiosity, since the hypothetical particle's massive nature meant that there was no way any particle collider on Earth could produce it and prove (or refute) its existence.
But now the researchers have suggested that if these particles exist, signs of their existence might be detectable in the cosmic microwave background radiation, the afterglow of the Big Bang that created the universe about 13.8 billion years ago.
Currently, the prevailing view in cosmology is that moments after the Big Bang, the universe grew gigantically in size. This enormous growth spurt, called inflation, would have smoothed out the cosmos, explaining why it now looks mostly similar in every direction.
After inflation ended, research suggests that the leftover energy heated the newborn universe during an epoch called "reheating." Sandora and his colleagues suggest that extreme temperatures generated during reheating could have produced large amounts of their superheavy particles, enough to explain dark matter's current gravitational effects on the universe.
However, for this model to work, the heat during reheating would have had to be significantly higher than what is typically assumed in universal models. A hotter reheating would in turn leave a signature in the cosmic microwave background radiation that the next generation of cosmic microwave background experiments could detect. "All this will happen within the next few years hopefully, next decade, max," Sandora said.
If dark matter is made of these superheavy particles, such a discovery would not only shed light on the nature of most of the universe's matter, but also yield insights into the nature of inflation and how it started and stopped — all of which remains highly uncertain, the researchers said.
For example, if dark matter is made of these superheavy particles, that reveals "that inflation happened at a very high energy, which in turn means that it was able to produce not just fluctuations in the temperature of the early universe, but also in space-time itself, in the form of gravitational waves," Sandora said. "Second, it tells us that the energy of inflation had to decay into matter extremely rapidly, because if it had taken too long, the universe would have cooled to the point where it would not have been able to produce any Planckian interacting dark matter particles at all."
Sandora and his colleagues detailed their findings online March 10 in the journal Physical Review Letters.