Research, teaching and outreach in Physics at UW–Madison
Massive bubbles at center of Milky Way caused by supermassive black hole
New research reveals the origins of enormous bubbles of material emanating from the center of the Milky Way.
The related structures — known as the eRosita and Fermi bubbles and the microwave haze — are the result of a powerful jet of activity from the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy. The study, published March 7 in Nature Astronomy, also shows the jet began spewing out material about 2.6 million years ago, and lasted about 100,000 years.
The work was led by Karen Yang of National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan with University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ellen Zweibel and Mateusz Ruszkowski at the University of Michigan.
The black hole origin of these huge bubbles rules out an alternative model that the expansion of the material was driven by exploding stars. Such a nuclear starburst would last about 10 million years, according to Zweibel, a professor of astronomy and physics at UW–Madison.
“On the other hand, our active black hole model accurately predicts the relative sizes of the eRosita X-ray bubbles and the Fermi gamma ray bubbles, provided the energy injection time is about one percent of that, or one-tenth of a million years,” Zweibel says. “Injecting energy over 10 million years would produce bubbles with a completely different appearance. While both the black hole and stellar explosion models were in reasonably good agreement with the gamma ray data, it’s the discovery of the X-ray bubbles, and the opportunity to compare the X-ray and gamma ray bubbles, which provide the crucial, previously missing piece.”
The enormous structures are nearly 36,000 light-years tall, one-third the diameter of the Milky Way. The eRostia and Fermi bubbles were named for the telescopes that discovered them in 2020 and 2010, respectively.
In particular, the new results constrain the minimum mass of the dark matter particles, as well as the strength of interactions between dark matter and normal matter.
According to these new results, a dark matter particle must be heavier than a zeptoelectronvolt, which is 10-21 electronvolts. That’s one trillionth of a trillionth of the mass of an electron. This study also shows that dark matter’s interactions with normal matter must be roughly 1,000 times weaker than the weak nuclear force. Of the known forces, only gravity is weaker.
These novel measurements used data from the Dark Energy Survey, a cosmological survey designed to study dark energy, the mysterious force driving the accelerated expansion of the universe. In contrast, dark matter is gravitationally attractive, resisting the expansion of the universe and gravitationally binding astronomical systems such as galaxies. The smallest “dwarf” galaxies can have hundreds to thousands of times more dark matter than normal matter. Over the past five years, the Dark Energy Survey has combined with other surveys to more than double the known population of these tiny galaxies. The current total is now over 50.
“The large number of dwarf galaxies that we found orbiting the Milky Way is consistent with expectations from the simplest picture of dark matter — that is, comprising slow-moving particles that interact only through gravity,” Bechtol explained. “In this new paper, we rule out several alternative possibilities for the nature of dark matter.”
Dark matter makes up 85% of the matter in the universe, but we have yet to detect it directly in the laboratory. The gravitational effects of dark matter are clearly visible in the motions of stars in galaxies, the clumpy distribution of galaxies in the universe, and even in the amount of lightweight elements. The robust astronomical evidence for the existence of dark matter has motivated many experimental searches here on Earth, using instruments ranging from cryogenic detectors buried deep underground to energetic particle colliders.
“The faintest galaxies are among the most valuable tools we have to learn about dark matter because they are sensitive to several of its fundamental properties all at once,” said Ethan Nadler, the study’s lead author and graduate student at Stanford University and SLAC.
In these multi-year, multi-telescope sky surveys, the raw data comes in the form of tens of thousands high-resolution digital images. But identifying these ultrafaint galaxies, as their description implies, is not as simple as looking at an image and seeing a faint smudge of light. Bechtol and his group, including physics grad student Mitch McNanna, designed the search algorithms needed to identify, with some statistical assurance, which individual stars are part of a dwarf galaxy.
“We worked closely with experts in galaxy formation and particle physics theory to compare the Dark Energy Survey observations with predictions,” Bechtol said. “Part of our job was to determine the sensitivity of our search — how far away from the Earth could we spot a galaxy with only a few hundred stars?”
By combining the observed census of dwarf galaxies with advanced cosmological simulations of the distribution of dark matter around the Milky Way, scientists were able to predict how the physical properties of dark matter would affect the number of small galaxies. Small galaxies form in regions where the dark matter density in the early universe is very slightly above average. Physical processes that smooth out these regions of higher density (if dark matter moves too quickly or gains energy due to interactions with normal matter) or prevent density variations from collapsing to form galaxies (thanks to quantum interference effects) would reduce the number of galaxies observed by the Dark Energy Survey.
“Astrophysical observations provide unique information about the fundamental nature of dark matter, and are complementary to searches for dark matter particles in terrestrial experiments.” Bechtol said. “With the Dark Energy Survey, we continue to learn about the deep connection between particle physics and the growth of cosmic structure, ranging from the vast network of galaxies in the cosmic web, down to smallest individual galaxies.”
The Dark Energy Survey is a collaboration of more than 300 scientists from 25 institutions in six countries. For more information about the survey, please visit the experiment’s website.
Funding for the DES Projects has been provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Ministry of Science and Education of Spain, the Science and Technology Facilities Council of the United Kingdom, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Kavli Institute of Cosmological Physics at the University of ChicagoFunding Authority for Funding and Projects in Brazil, Carlos Chagas Filho Foundation for Research Support of the State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development and the Ministry of Science and Technology, the German Research Foundation and the collaborating institutions in the Dark Energy Survey.
The Milky Way’s satellites help reveal link between dark matter halos and galaxy formation
Just as the sun has planets and the planets have moons, our galaxy has satellite galaxies, and some of those might have smaller satellite galaxies of their own. To wit, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a relatively large satellite galaxy visible from the southern hemisphere, is thought to have brought at least six of its own satellite galaxies with it when it first approached the Milky Way, based on recent measurements from the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission.
Astrophysicists believe that dark matter is responsible for much of that structure, and now researchers with the Dark Energy Survey — including University of Wisconsin–Madison assistant professor of physics Keith Bechtol and his research group — have drawn on observations of faint galaxies around the Milky Way to place tighter constraints on the connection between the size and structure of galaxies and the dark matter halos that surround them. At the same time, they have found more evidence for the existence of LMC satellite galaxies and made a new prediction: If the scientists’ models are correct, the Milky Way should have an additional 150 or more very faint satellite galaxies awaiting discovery by next-generation projects such as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time.
Two new studies, forthcoming in the Astrophysical Journal and available as preprints (pre-print 1; pre-print 2), are part of a larger effort to understand how dark matter works on scales smaller than our galaxy.
“The ultra-faint galaxies that orbit the Milky Way are small clouds of dark matter with just enough stars to see that they exist. They are nearly invisible, but if spotted, they make excellent natural laboratories to study dark matter,” Bechtol says. “We hope to learn what dark matter is made of, how it was produced in the early Universe, and what relationship it has to the known particle species.”
Shining galaxies’ light on dark matter
Astronomers have long known the Milky Way has satellite galaxies, including the Large Magellanic Cloud, which can be seen by the naked eye from the southern hemisphere, but the number was thought to be around just a dozen or so until around the year 2000. Since then, the number of observed satellite galaxies has risen dramatically. Thanks to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and more recent discoveries by projects including the Dark Energy Survey (DES), the number of known satellite galaxies has climbed to about 60.
Such discoveries are always exciting, but what’s perhaps most exciting is what the data could tell us about the cosmos. “For the first time, we can look for these satellite galaxies across about three-quarters of the sky, and that’s really important to several different ways of learning about dark matter and galaxy formation,” said Risa Wechsler, director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC). Last year, for example, the DES team used data on satellite galaxies in conjunction with computer simulations to place much tighter limits on dark matter’s interactions with ordinary matter.
Now, the team is using data from a comprehensive search over most of the sky to ask different questions, including how much dark matter it takes to form a galaxy, how many satellite galaxies we should expect to find around the Milky Way and whether galaxies can bring their own satellites into orbit around our own – a key prediction of the most popular model of dark matter.
Hints of galactic hierarchy
The answer to that last question appears to be a resounding “yes.”
The possibility of detecting a hierarchy of satellite galaxies first arose some years back when DES detected more satellite galaxies in the vicinity of the Large Magellanic Cloud than they would have expected if those satellites were randomly distributed throughout the sky. More data was needed to conclusively attribute this excess to galaxies that arrived at the Milky Way with the Large Magellanic Cloud.
In the first published study, the DES group combined observations from DES with those from the Pan-STARRS survey, together covering 75% of the sky, to test this hypothesis. The DES data represents nearly 40,000 images from a 500-million-pixel camera collected over three years from a telescope in Chile.
The raw DES data was run through a series of data compressions, including a final step led by Bechtol’s group, to identify and catalog individual stars, including their color, which infers temperature, and how far away they are.
“We throw the star catalog into our search algorithms, which are responsible for identifying small groups of stars that are clustered in space and have similar colors and brightness. There’s a particular distribution for what we expect the stars to look like in ultrafaint galaxies,” says UW-Madison physics graduate student Mitch McNanna. “Even then we’re not 100 percent sure that we’ve found a real galaxy, so we also collect spectroscopic observations to measure the doppler motion of the stars. Hopefully we see the group of stars is moving in a way that’s different from the rest of the stars in the Milky Way halo.”
The team, including Alex Drlica-Wagner at Fermilab, produced a model of which satellite galaxies are most likely to be seen by current surveys, given where they are in the sky as well as their brightness, size and distance.
In the second study, led by others in the DES team including Ethan Nadler at Stanford University and collaborators, the team took the findings of the latest satellite census and analyzed computer simulations of millions of possible universes. Those simulations model the formation of dark matter structure that permeates the Milky Way, including details such as smaller dark matter clumps within the Milky Way that are expected to host satellite galaxies. To connect dark matter to galaxy formation, the researchers used a flexible model that allows them to account for uncertainties in the current understanding of galaxy formation, including the relationship between galaxies’ brightness and the mass of dark matter clumps within which they form.
Those components in hand, the team ran their model with a wide range of parameters and searched for simulations in which LMC-like objects fell into the gravitational pull of a Milky Way-like galaxy. By comparing those cases with galactic observations, they could infer a range of astrophysical parameters, including how many satellite galaxies should have tagged along with the LMC. The results were consistent with Gaia observations: Six satellite galaxies should currently be detected in the vicinity of the LMC, moving with roughly the right velocities and in roughly the same places as astronomers had previously observed. The simulations also suggested that the LMC first approached the Milky Way about 2.2 billion years ago, consistent with high-precision measurements of the motion of the LMC from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Galaxies yet unseen
In addition to the LMC findings, the team also put limits on the connection between dark matter halos and galaxy structure. For example, in simulations that most closely matched the history of the Milky Way and the LMC, the smallest galaxies astronomers could currently observe should have stars with a combined mass of around a hundred suns, and about a million times as much dark matter. According to an extrapolation of the model, the faintest galaxies that could ever be observed could form in halos up to a hundred times less massive than that.
And there could be more discoveries to come: If the simulations are correct, there are around 150 more satellite galaxies – more than double the number already discovered – hovering around the Milky Way. The discovery of those galaxies would help confirm the researchers’ model of the links between dark matter and galaxy formation, and likely place tighter constraints on the nature of dark matter itself.