Dark matter mystery: Astronomers devise way to ‘see’ Universe’s most elusive substance

3 min

Dark matter mystery: The hunt for dark matter remains one of the Universe’s biggest conundrums, as the mystery substance cannot be seen or interacted with in any meaningful way. Astronomers do, however, believe there is so much of the stuff it accounts for about 27 percent of the Universe. And approximately 85 percent of all matter in the Universe is believed to be dark, whereas everything we can touch and see only adds up to less than five percent.

Since dark matter does not emit or reflect light, or interact with any form of electromagnetic radiation, efforts to detect it might seem futile.

But astronomers can infer its presence in spinning galaxies based on their movements.


In short, galaxies spin at breakneck speeds that should see them fall fly apart.

Instead, an invisible substance appears to glue them together and give them more mass and gravity than the sum of what we can see.

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Dark matter: Astronomers have devised a method of measuring dark matter halos (Image: Swinburne Astronomy Productions – James Josephides)

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Dark matter: The substance can cause an effect known as gravitational lensing (Image: NASA)

Galaxies also appear to be surrounded by a so-called dark matter halo – a region of space surrounding a galactic disc where dark matter clumps together.

A team of astronomers has now fond a way to detect these dark matter halos using a technique they believe is 10 times better than anything devised so far.


Researchers at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia have proposed in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society a way of measuring the gravity of these dark matter halos.

Although the technique will not detect dark matter directly, it can observe the effects dark matter has on the space around it.

Pol Gurri, a PhD student who led the study, said: “It’s like looking at a flag to try to know how much wind there is.

“You cannot see the wind, but the flag’s motion tells you how strongly the wind is blowing.”

The technique relies on an effect known as gravitational lensing.

The effect, which features in Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, see the very fabric of the Universe – spacetime – warp in the presence of great mass.

The bending of time and space, in turn, causes light to shift and distort whatever sits behind the dark matter.

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Hubble Space Telescope fact sheet: Incredible facts and figures (Image: EXPRESS)

Countdown blunder: Rachel Riley's huge mistake after replacing Carol Vorderman exposed

Dark matter: The substance cannot be detected or interacted with directly (Image: NASA)

Associate Professor Edward Taylor, who was involved in the study, said: “The dark matter will very slightly distort the image of anything behind it.

“The effect is a bit like reading a newspaper through the base of a wine glass.”

Astronomers already employ weak gravitational lensing to find clusters of dark matter in space.

The Swinburne researchers have now combined the effect with observations of a rotating galaxy for much more precise measurements.


They used the Australian National University’s 2.3m telescope in Australia to track how gravitationally lensed galaxies are rotating.

Because they know how a galaxy should behave, based on its contents, they know what the galaxy should look like.

Mr Gurri said: “By measuring how distorted the real galaxy images are, then we can figure out how much dark matter it would take to explain what we see.”

He added: “With our new way of seeing the dark matter, we hope to get a clearer picture of where the dark matter is, and what role it plays in how galaxies form.”

And Professor Taylor said: “We have shown that we can make a real contribution to these global efforts with a relatively small telescope built in the 1980s, just by thinking about the problem in a different way.”

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