NASA Proposes a Way That Dark Matter’s Influence Could Be Directly Observed

Milky Way Galaxy and Central Bar Viewed From Above

This artist’s rendering shows a view of our own Milky Way Galaxy and its central bar as it might appear if viewed from above. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC)

How Dark Matter Could Be Measured in the Solar System

Pictures of the Milky Way show billions of stars arranged in a spiral pattern radiating out from the center, with illuminated gas in between. But our eyes can only glimpse the surface of what holds our galaxy together. About 95 percent of the mass of our galaxy is invisible and does not interact with light. It is made of a mysterious substance called dark matter, which has never been directly measured.

Now, a new study calculates how dark matter’s gravity affects objects in our solar system, including spacecraft and distant comets. It also proposes a way that dark matter’s influence could be directly observed with a future experiment. The article is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“We’re predicting that if you get out far enough in the solar system, you actually have the opportunity to start measuring the dark matter force,” said Jim Green, study co-author and advisor to NASA’s Office of the Chief Scientist. “This is the first idea of how to do it and where we would do it.”

Dark matter in our backyard

Here on Earth, our planet’s gravity keeps us from flying out of our chairs, and the Sun’s gravity keeps our planet orbiting on a 365-day schedule. But the farther from the Sun a spacecraft flies, the less it feels the Sun’s gravity, and the more it feels a different source of gravity: that of the matter from the rest of the galaxy, which is mostly dark matter. The mass of our galaxy’s 100 billion stars is minuscule compared to estimates of the Milky Way’s dark matter content.

To understand the influence of dark matter in the solar system, lead study author Edward Belbruno calculated the “galactic force,” the overall gravitational force of normal matter combined with dark matter from the entire galaxy. He found that in the solar system, about 45 percent of this force is from dark matter and 55 percent is from normal, so-called “baryonic matter.” This suggests a roughly half-and-half split between the mass of dark matter and normal matter in the solar system.

“I was a bit surprised by the relatively small contribution of the galactic force due to dark matter felt in our solar system as compared to the force due to the normal matter,” said Belbruno, mathematician and astrophysicist at Princeton University and Yeshiva University. “This is explained by the fact most of dark matter is in the outer parts of our galaxy, far from our solar system.”

A large region called a “halo” of dark matter encircles the Milky Way and represents the greatest concentration of the dark matter of the galaxy. There is little to no normal matter in the halo. If the solar system were located at a greater distance from the center of the galaxy, it would feel the effects of a larger proportion of dark matter in the galactic force because it would be closer to the dark matter halo, the authors said.

NASA Voyager 1 Spacecraft Solar System

In this artist’s conception, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has a bird’s-eye view of the solar system. The circles represent the orbits of the major outer planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 visited the planets Jupiter and Saturn. The spacecraft is now more than 14 billion miles from Earth, making it the farthest human-made object ever built. In fact, Voyager 1 is now zooming through interstellar space, the region between the stars that is filled with gas, dust, and material recycled from dying stars. Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

How dark matter may influence spacecraft

Green and Belbruno predict that dark matter’s gravity ever so slightly interacts with all of the spacecraft that NASA has sent on paths that lead out of the solar system, according to the new study.

“If spacecraft move through the dark matter long enough, their trajectories are changed, and this is important to take into consideration for mission planning for certain future missions,” Belbruno said.

Such spacecraft may include the retired Pioneer 10 and 11 probes that launched in 1972 and 1973, respectively; the Voyager 1 and 2 probes that have been exploring for more than 40 years and have entered interstellar space; and the New Horizons spacecraft that has flown by Pluto and Arrokoth in the Kuiper Belt.

But it’s a tiny effect. After traveling billions of miles, the path of a spacecraft like Pioneer 10 would only deviate by about 5 feet (1.6 meters) due to the influence of dark matter. “They do feel the effect of dark matter, but it’s so small, we can’t measure it,” Green said.

Where does the galactic force take over?

At a certain distance from the Sun, the galactic force becomes more powerful than the pull of the Sun, which is made of normal matter. Belbruno and Green calculated that this transition happens at around 30,000 astronomical units, or 30,000 times the distance from Earth to the Sun. That is well beyond the distance of Pluto, but still inside the Oort Cloud, a swarm of millions of comets that surrounds the solar system and extends out to 100,000 astronomical units.

This means that dark matter’s gravity could have played a role in the trajectory of objects like ‘Oumuamua, the cigar-shaped comet or asteroid that came from another star system and passed through the inner solar system in 2017. Its unusually fast speed could be explained by dark matter’s gravity pushing on it for millions of years, the authors say.

If there is a giant planet in the outer reaches of the solar system, a hypothetical object called Planet 9 or Planet X that scientists have been searching for in recent years, dark matter would also influence its orbit. If this planet exists, dark matter could perhaps even push it away from the area where scientists are currently looking for it, Green and Belbruno write. Dark matter may have also caused some of the Oort Cloud comets to escape the orbit of the Sun altogether.

Could dark matter’s gravity be measured?

To measure the effects of dark matter in the solar system, a spacecraft wouldn’t necessarily have to travel that far. At a distance of 100 astronomical units, a spacecraft with the right experiment could help astronomers measure the influence of dark matter directly, Green and Belbruno said.

Specifically, a spacecraft equipped with radioisotope power, a technology that has allowed Pioneer 10 and 11, the Voyagers, and New Horizon to fly very far from the Sun, may be able to make this measurement. Such a spacecraft could carry a reflective ball and drop it at an appropriate distance. The ball would feel only galactic forces, while the spacecraft would experience a thermal force from the decaying radioactive element in its power system, in addition to the galactic forces. Subtracting out the thermal force, researchers could then look at how the galactic force relates to deviations in the respective trajectories of the ball and the spacecraft. Those deviations would be measured with a laser as the two objects fly parallel to one another.

A proposed mission concept called Interstellar Probe, which aims to travel to about 500 astronomical units from the Sun to explore that uncharted environment, is one possibility for such an experiment.

Galaxy Cluster Cl 0024+17

Two views from Hubble of the massive galaxy cluster Cl 0024+17 (ZwCl 0024+1652) are shown. To the left is the view in visible-light with odd-looking blue arcs appearing among the yellowish galaxies. These are the magnified and distorted images of galaxies located far behind the cluster. Their light is bent and amplified by the immense gravity of the cluster in a process called gravitational lensing. To the right, a blue shading has been added to indicate the location of invisible material called dark matter that is mathematically required to account for the nature and placement of the gravitationally lensed galaxies that are seen. Credit: NASA, ESA, M.J. Jee and H. Ford (Johns Hopkins University)

More about dark matter

Dark matter as a hidden mass in galaxies was first proposed in the 1930s by Fritz Zwicky. But the idea remained controversial until the 1960s and 1970s, when Vera C. Rubin and colleagues confirmed that the motions of stars around their galactic centers would not follow the laws of physics if only normal matter were involved. Only a gigantic hidden source of mass can explain why stars at the outskirts of spiral galaxies like ours move as quickly as they do.

Today, the nature of dark matter is one of the biggest mysteries in all of astrophysics. Powerful observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory have helped scientists begin to understand the influence and distribution of dark matter in the universe at large. Hubble has explored many galaxies whose dark matter contributes to an effect called “lensing,” where gravity bends space itself and magnifies images of more distant galaxies.

Astronomers will learn more about dark matter in the cosmos with the newest set of state-of-the-art telescopes. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which launched Dec. 25, 2021, will contribute to our understanding of dark matter by taking images and other data of galaxies and observing their lensing effects. NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, set to launch in the mid-2020s, will conduct surveys of more than a billion galaxies to look at the influence of dark matter on their shapes and distributions.

The European Space Agency’s forthcoming Euclid mission, which has a NASA contribution, will also target dark matter and dark energy, looking back in time about 10 billion years to a period when dark energy began hastening the universe’s expansion. And the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, a collaboration of the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and others, which is under construction in Chile, will add valuable data to this puzzle of dark matter’s true essence.

But these powerful tools are designed to look for dark matter’s strong effects across large distances, and much farther afield than in our solar system, where dark matter’s influence is so much weaker.

“If you could send a spacecraft out there to detect it, that would be a huge discovery,” Belbruno said.

Reference: “When leaving the Solar system: Dark matter makes a difference” by Edward Belbruno and James Green, 4 January 2022, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stab3781

4 Comments on "NASA Proposes a Way That Dark Matter’s Influence Could Be Directly Observed"

  1. Leopoldo Capulong | February 4, 2022 at 10:53 pm | Reply

    Why not drop two reflective balls instead? One with a thermal isotope in it, and the other without? That way, you can have closer test sampling?

  2. Howard Jeffrey Bender, Ph.D. | February 5, 2022 at 5:59 am | Reply

    Another possibility, from a view of String Theory, is that Dark Matter appears to us as an effect of string/anti-string annihilations. As you may know, quantum mechanics requires that strings must be formed as pairs in the quantum foam – a string and an anti-string – that immediately annihilate each other. Quantum mechanics also requires both the string and anti-string to be surrounded by “jitters” that reduce their monstrous vibrating energies. What if this jitter remains for a fraction of an instant after their string/anti-string annihilations? This temporary jitter would be seen by us as matter, via E=mc2, for that instant before it too returns to the foam. That’s why we never see it – the “mass” lasts only for that instant but is repeated over and over and over, all over. Specifics on this can be found in my YouTube, Dark Matter – A String Theory Way at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N84yISQvGCk

  3. Perhaps it’s just a misunderstanding of the true form of general relativity in the sense that gravity can be both stronger and weaker on different reference frames ie scale dependent and dark matter as such will never be found in any laboratory or measurement procedures here on Earth because it simply doesn’t exist. It also kind of reminds of the argument about the scale at which quantum mechanics become a real everyday object (ie collapse of a multitude of varying wavefunctions). Just a thought…😉

  4. Assumption: the closer to the plane the higher the liquid dark matter content. As this dark matter encounters planets, moons and asteroids it is converted to gaseous dark matter and begins to rise away from the plane due to expansion. Every object of enough mass will cause the dark matter at its center to change state to gaseous dark matter due to the zero g effect at their center.. this heat would be in the center of the object. When Oumuamua crossed the plane of the solar system and left along a path much closer to the plane this interior heating could explain its acceleration.

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