NASA: Black holes make perfect lab for dark matter

NASA scientists believe the gravitational pull of black holes in the galaxy is causing dark matter to smash together at such high intensity that it is emitting gamma-ray light.

ANIMATION (NASA) – A new NASA computer simulation made at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland has revealed what scientists there believe to be gamma-ray light produced by the smashing of dark matter particles in the gravitational pull of a dark hole.

The revelation allows scientists a new view into the elusive particle, which research astrophysicist Jeremy Schnittman says remains a mystery for much of the world.

“I’ve long been interested in black holes and getting interested in dark matter, which is one of the most interesting yet poorly understood thing in astrophysics. We know that dark matter makes up the vast majority of the matter in the universe, but we really don’t know what it is,” Schnittman says.

Schnittman works in the gravitational astrophysics branch at Goddard where he studies gravitational waves, black holes, neutron stars, and does the theoretical work with computer programs to model what humans see when looking into the sky.

Schnittman says the black holes make the perfect laboratory in which to learn about dark matter particles because of the holes’ strong gravitational pull.

“So for regular matter, like protons and electrons, the way we learn about them is smashing them together and see what falls out. The problem with dark matter is that that’s really hard to do because it really doesn’t react to any other force, except for gravity. So if you want to smash it together, the best thing to do is use something like a black hole that has enough gravity to accelerate the dark matter to very high energies and smash it together and hopefully see something that comes out, and in this case it would be gamma rays,” Schnittman says.

Gamma-rays have extremely high energy and “are produced by the hottest and most energetic objects in the universe,” according to NASA.

Schnittman says gamma-rays produce more than a million times greater energy than that of a typical UV ray.

The gamma-ray glow around the black holes is being picked up by the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, which was launched in June 2008.

The simulation also shows what scientists believe to be the form of the dark matter, which comes as Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, or WIMPS. These WIMPs are what are colliding near the dark holes and producing the gamma-ray light.

This process “takes place outside the black hole’s event horizon, the boundary beyond which nothing can escape,” according to NASA. With greater energy, this boundary becomes larger and the chances of gamma-rays emitting light beyond the black hole increases, giving scientists a closer look into both black holes and dark matter.

Schnittman says this opens the door to a whole new level of understanding of dark matter.

“It’s really a Holy Grail in physics. I hesitate to even say this, but every time we’ve discovered a new particle, it’s a Nobel Prize. The dark matter particle will be no different. So even though it’s a long shot, and this is just one of many ways of looking for it, of course the pay off is just tremendous,” Schnittman says.