Friday, October 21, 2011

Finding the dark with light, 10.21.11

NASA scientists are using the Hubble Space Telescope to detect dark matter using light. This may sound odd, but the researchers found out it is possible.
Image credit: NASA, ESA, M. Postman (STScl), and the CLASH Team.
The principle that allows it to work is something called gravitational lensing, an effect predicted by Einstein in the early part of the 20th century. The idea is that when a large object with considerable mass passes in front of a light source, it causes the light to focus temporarily as it is literally pulled a little bit towards the object, thus making the light appear a little brighter for a time.
On the galactic scale, we do not see it quite so much as a flare, but rather we see bends or curves in the light. In this image here, you can clearly see some areas of light that are distorted, seeming to bend around nothing. That “nothing,” the researchers have determined, is dark matter, the as of yet enigmatic stuff that is proving very difficult to study. The vast majority of things that researchers have learned about dark matter can only be gleaned from its seeming effect on everything else. It is something they cannot see and cannot reach yet due to the current limitations of our space travel programs. Hopefully with enough studies they can determine what it is. As dark matter makes up the bulk of the universe’s mass, scientists are very eager to figure it out.
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