Astronomers were puzzled earlier this year when NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope spotted an overabundance of dark matter in the heart of the merging galaxy cluster Abell 520. This observation was surprising because dark matter and galaxies should be anchored together, even during a collision between galaxy clusters.
Astronomers have abundant evidence that an as-yet-unidentified form of matter is responsible for 90 percent of the gravity within galaxies and clusters of galaxies. Because it is detected via its gravity and not its light, they call it “dark matter.” Now, a new observation of Abell 520 from another team of astronomers using a different Hubble camera finds that the core does not appear to be over-dense in dark matter after all. The study findings were published in The Astrophysical Journal.
“The earlier result presented a mystery. In our observations we didn’t see anything surprising in the core,” said study leader Douglas Clowe, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Ohio University. “Our measurements are in complete agreement with how we would expect dark matter to behave.”
Hubble observations announced earlier this year by astronomers using Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 suggested that a clump of dark matter was left behind during a clash between massive galaxies clusters in Abell 520, located 2.4 billion light-years away. The dark matter collected into a “dark core” that contained far fewer galaxies than would be expected if the dark and luminous matter were closely connected, which is generally found to be the case. Because dark matter is not visible, its presence and distribution is found indirectly through its gravitational effects. The gravity from both dark and luminous matter warps space, bending and distorting light from galaxies and clusters behind it like a giant magnifying glass. Astronomers can use this effect, called gravitational lensing, to infer the presence of dark matter in massive galaxy clusters. Both teams used this technique to map the dark matter in the merging cluster.
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