This large, fuzzy-looking galaxy is so diffuse that astronomers call it a “see-through” galaxy because they can clearly see distant galaxies behind it. The ghostly object, cataloged as NGC 1052-DF2, doesn’t have a noticeable central region, or even spiral arms and a disk, typical features of a spiral galaxy. But it doesn’t look like an elliptical galaxy, either. Even its globular clusters are oddballs: they are twice as large as typical stellar groupings seen in other galaxies. All of these oddities pale in comparison to the weirdest aspect of this galaxy: NGC 1052-DF2 is missing most, if not all, of its dark matter
Credits: NASA, ESA, and P. van Dokkum (Yale University)
Galaxies and dark matter go together like peanut butter and jelly. You typically don’t find one without the other.
Therefore, researchers were surprised when they uncovered a galaxy that is missing most, if not all, of its dark matter. An invisible substance, dark matter is the underlying scaffolding upon which galaxies are built. It’s the glue that holds the visible matter in galaxies — stars and gas — together.
“We thought that every galaxy had dark matter and that dark matter is how a galaxy begins,” said Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, lead researcher of the Hubble observations. “This invisible, mysterious substance is the most dominant aspect of any galaxy. So finding a galaxy without it is unexpected.
It challenges the standard ideas of how we think galaxies work, and it shows that dark matter is real: it has its own separate existence apart from other components of galaxies. This result also suggests that there may be more than one way to form a galaxy.”
The unique galaxy, called NGC 1052-DF2, contains at most 1/400th the amount of dark matter that astronomers had expected. The galaxy is as large as our Milky Way, but it had escaped attention because it contains only 1/200th the number of stars. Given the object’s large size and faint appearance, astronomers classify NGC 1052-DF2 as an ultra-diffuse galaxy. A 2015 survey of the Coma galaxy cluster showed these large, faint objects to be surprisingly common.
But none of the ultra-diffuse galaxies discovered so far have been found to be lacking in dark matter. So even among this unusual class of galaxy, NGC 1052-DF2 is an oddball.
Van Dokkum and his team spotted the galaxy with the Dragonfly Telephoto Array, a custom-built telescope in New Mexico they designed to find these ghostly galaxies. They then used the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to measure the motions of 10 giant groupings of stars called globular clusters in the galaxy.
Keck revealed that the globular clusters were moving at relatively low speeds, less than 23,000 miles per hour. Stars and clusters in the outskirts of galaxies containing dark matter move at least three times faster. From those measurements, the team calculated the galaxy’s mass.
In addition to the Gemini observations, to further assess this inconsistency the team dissected the light from several of the bright sources within NGC1052-DF2 using Keck’s Deep Imaging Multi-Object Spectrograph (DEIMOS) and Low-Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (LRIS), identifying 10 globular clusters. These clusters are large compact groups of stars that orbit the galactic core.
The spectral data obtained on the Keck telescopes revealed that the globular clusters were moving much slower than expected. The slower the objects in a system move, the less mass there is in that system. The team’s calculations show that all of the mass in the galaxy could be attributed to the mass of the stars, which means there is almost no dark matter in NGC1052-DF2.
“If there is any dark matter at all, it’s very little,” van Dokkum explained. “The stars in the galaxy can account for all the mass, and there doesn’t seem to be any room for dark matter.”
“Keck is in a very small group of telescopes that could even attempt these observations because you need a large telescope to measure these accurate velocities,” van Dokkum added. “Keck also has some of the best spectrographs in the world for measuring the velocities of faint objects. We had the opportunity to check and make sure we got the same result within the uncertainties, and that gave us confidence that we were doing things right.”
The team’s results demonstrate that dark matter is separable from galaxies. “This discovery shows that dark matter is real – it has its own separate existence apart from other components of galaxies,” said van Dokkum.
NGC1052-DF2’s globular clusters and atypical structure has perplexed astronomers aiming to determine the conditions this galaxy formed under.
“It’s like you take a galaxy and you only have the stellar halo and globular clusters, and it somehow forgot to make everything else,” van Dokkum said. “There is no theory that predicted these types of galaxies. The galaxy is a complete mystery, as everything about it is strange. How you actually go about forming one of these things is completely unknown.”
However, researchers do have some ideas. NGC1052-DF2 resides about 65 million light years away in a collection of galaxies that is dominated by the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 1052. Galaxy formation is turbulent and violent, and van Dokkum suggests that the growth of the fledgling massive galaxy billions of years ago perhaps played a role in NGC1052-DF2’s dark-matter deficiency.
Another idea is that a cataclysmic event within the oddball galaxy, such as the birth of myriad massive stars, swept out all the gas and dark matter, halting star formation.
These possibilities are speculative, however, and don’t explain all of the characteristics of the observed galaxy, the researchers add.
The team continues the hunt for more dark-matter-deficient galaxies. They are analyzing Hubble images of 23 other diffuse galaxies. Three of them appear to share similarities with NGC1052-DF2, which van Dokkum plans to follow up on in the coming months at Keck Observatory.
“Every galaxy we knew about before has dark matter, and they all fall in familiar categories like a spiral or elliptical galaxies,” van Dokkum said. “But what would you get if there were no dark matter at all? Maybe this is what you would get.”
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