07/17/2003 07:00:00

A Detailed Map of Dark Matter in a Galactic Cluster Reveals How Giant Cosmic Structures Formed

Astrophysicists have had an exceedingly difficult time charting the mysterious stuff called dark matter that permeates the universe because it's--well--dark. Now, a unique "mass map" of a cluster of galaxies shows in unprecedented detail how dark matter is distributed with respect to the shining galaxies. The new comparison gives a convincing indication of how dark matter figures into the grand scheme of the cosmos.

Using a technique based on Einstein's theory of general relativity, an international group of astronomers led by Jean-Paul Kneib, Richard Ellis, and Tommaso Treu of the California Institute of Technology mapped the mass distribution of a gigantic cluster of galaxies about 4.5 billion light-years from Earth. They did this by studying the way the cluster bends the light from other galaxies behind it. This technique, known as gravitational lensing, allowed the researchers to infer the mass contribution of the dark matter, even though it is otherwise invisible.

Clusters of galaxies are the largest stable systems in the universe and ideal "laboratories" for studying the relationship between the distributions of dark and visible matter. Caltech's Fritz Zwicky realized in 1937 from studies of the motions of galaxies in the nearby Coma cluster that the visible component of a cluster--the stars in galaxies--represents only a tiny fraction of the total mass. About 80 to 85 percent of the matter is invisible.

In a campaign of over 120 hours of observations using the Hubble Space Telescope, the researchers surveyed a patch of sky almost as large as the full moon, which contained the cluster and thousands of more distant galaxies behind it. The distorted shapes of these distant systems were used to map the dark matter in the foreground cluster. The study achieved a new level of precision, not only for the center of the cluster, as has been done before for many systems, but also for the previously uncharted outlying regions.

The result is the most comprehensive study to date of the distribution of dark matter and its relationship to the shining galaxies. Signals were traced as far out as 15 million light-years from the cluster center, a much larger range than in previous investigations.

Many researchers have tried to perform these types of measurements with ground-based telescopes, but the technique relies heavily on measuring the exact shapes of distant galaxies behind the cluster, and for this the "surgeon's eye" of the Hubble Space Telescope is far superior.

The study, to be published soon in the Astrophysical Journal, reveals that the density of dark matter falls fairly sharply with distance from the cluster center, defining a limit to its distribution and hence the total mass of the cluster. The falloff in density with radius confirms a picture that has emerged from detailed computer simulations over the past years.

Team member Richard Ellis said, "Although theorists have predicted the distribution of dark matter in clusters from numerical simulations based on the effects of gravity, this is the first time we have convincing observations on large scales to back them up.

"Some astronomers had speculated clusters might contain large reservoirs of dark matter in their outermost regions," Ellis added. "Assuming our cluster is representative, this is not the case."

In finer detail, the team noticed that some structure emerged from their map of the dark matter. For example they found localized concentrations of dark matter associated with galaxies known to be slowly falling into the system. Overall there is a striking correspondence between features in the dark matter map and that delineated by the cluster galaxies, which is an important result in the new study.

"The close association of dark matter with structure in the galaxy distribution is convincing evidence that clusters like the one studied built up from the merging of smaller groups of galaxies, which were prevented from flying away by the gravitational pull of their dark matter," says Jean-Paul Kneib, who is the lead author in the publication.

Future investigations will extend this work using Hubble's new camera, the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), which will be trained on a second cluster later this year. ACS is 10 times more efficient than the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, which was used for this investigation. With the new instrument, it will be possible to study clumps of finer mass in galaxy clusters in order to investigate how the clusters originally were assembled.

By tracing the distribution of dark matter in the most massive structure in the universe using the powerful trick of gravitational lensing, astronomers are making great progress towards a better understanding of how such systems were assembled, as well as toward defining the key role of dark matter.

In addition to Kneib, Ellis, and Treu, the other team members are Patrick Hudelot of the Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées in France, Graham P. Smith of Caltech, Phil Marshall of the Mullard Radio Observatory in England, Oliver Czoske of the Institut für Astrophysik und Extraterrestrische Forschung in Germany, Ian Smail of the University of Durham in England, and Priya Natarajan of Yale University.

For more information, please contact:

Jean-Paul Kneib Caltech/Observatoire Midi-Pyrénées (currently in Hawaii) Phone: (808) 881-3865 E-mail: jean-paul.kneib@ast.obs-mip.fr

Richard Ellis Caltech Phone: (626) 395-4970 (secretary) (Australia: Cellular: 011-44-7768-923277) E-mail: rse@astro.caltech.edu