We hear a lot about dark matter, and how physicists are ever on the hunt for it. But how do you look for something you can't even see?
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.
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."