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Dark Matters

December 16, 2016

Under dark skies, two galaxies are in good view tonight: Andromeda and our own galaxy, the Milky Way. As night falls, the Milky Way forms a faintly glowing band across the northern sky, arcing from Orion in the east to the Summer Triangle in the West. And Andromeda stands just above the apex of the Milky Way’s arch. It looks like a small, hazy patch of light.

These and many other galaxies formed the basis of one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century: dark matter. It emits no detectable energy, but its gravity pulls at the visible matter around it.

Astronomers discovered dark matter in part by measuring the motions of stars. If galaxies contained only stars, gas, and dust, then the stars at their edges should move slower than the stars near the center. But observations showed that the stars were all moving at about the same speed, suggesting that something else was accelerating the ones at a galaxy’s rim: dark matter.

A recent study, though, suggests otherwise. The study found that stars at the rims of 153 galaxies move just as they would if they were being pulled along only by the galaxies’ visible matter — the stuff that shows up in telescopes. No dark matter is needed to explain their motions.

The observations are unlikely to mean that dark matter doesn’t exist — there’s just too much other evidence that it does. But they could mean that it takes a different form than expected — adding to the mystery of dark matter.


Script by Damond Benningfield


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