Saturday, January 19, 2008

Pools of Invisible Matter

Super Clusters Credit: Hubble NASA, ESA, C. Heymans (University of British Columbia), M. Gray (University of Nottingham), and the STAGES Collaboration

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is helping astronomers to dissect one of the largest structures in the universe, in a quest to understand the violent lives of galaxies, and providing indirect evidence of unseen dark matter tugging on galaxies in the crowded, rough-and-tumble environment of a massive supercluster of hundreds of galaxies.

The images are part of the Space Telescope Abell 901/902 Galaxy Evolution Survey (STAGES), which covers one of the largest patches of sky ever observed by the Hubble telescope.

The area surveyed is so wide that it took 80 Hubble images to cover the entire STAGES field. The new work is led by Meghan Gray of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom and Catherine Heymans of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, along with an international team of scientists.

The Hubble study pinpointed four main areas in the supercluster where dark matter has pooled into dense clumps, totaling 100 trillion times the Sun's mass. These areas match the location of hundreds of old galaxies that have experienced a violent history in their passage from the outskirts of the supercluster into these dense regions. These galaxies make up four separate galaxy clusters.

The dark matter map was constructed by measuring the distorted shapes of over 60,000 faraway galaxies.
[+/-] Click here to expand

To reach Earth, the galaxies' light traveled through the dark matter that surrounds the supercluster galaxies and was bent by the massive gravitational field. Heymans used the observed, subtle distortion of the galaxies' shapes to reconstruct the dark matter distribution in the supercluster using a method called weak gravitational lensing. The dark matter map is 2.5 times sharper than a previous ground-based survey of the supercluster.

On Earth, the pace of quiet country life is vastly different from the hustle of the big city. In the same way, galaxies living lonely isolated lives look very different from those found in the most crowded regions of the universe, like a supercluster. "We've known for a long time that galaxies in crowded environments tend to be older, redder, and rounder than those in the field," Gray said. "Galaxies are continually drawn into larger and larger groups and clusters by the inevitable force of gravity as the universe evolves."

In such busy environments galaxies are subject to a life of violence: high-speed collisions with other galaxies; the stripping away of gas, the fuel supply they use to form new stars; and distortion due to the strong gravitational pull of the underlying invisible dark matter. "Any or all of these effects may play a role in the transformation of galaxies, which is what we're trying to determine," Gray said.

The STAGES survey's simultaneous focus on both the big picture and the details can be likened to studying a big city. "It's as if we're trying to learn everything we can about New York City and New Yorkers," Gray explained. "We're examining large-scale features, like mapping the roads, counting skyscrapers, monitoring traffic. At the same time we're also studying the residents to figure out how the lifestyles of people living downtown differ from those out in the suburbs. But in our case the city is a supercluster, the roads are dark matter, and the people are galaxies."


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