The Enigma of Dragonfly 44, the Galaxy That’s Virtually Invisible


In 2016, astronomers led by Pieter van Dokkum of Yale College revealed a bombshell paper claiming the invention of a galaxy so dim, but so broad and heavy, that it have to be nearly totally invisible. They estimated that the galaxy, dubbed Dragonfly 44, is 99.99 p.c darkish matter.

A heated debate ensued about Dragonfly 44’s properties that is still unresolved. In the meantime, greater than 1,000 equally massive however faint galaxies have turned up.

Dragonfly 44 and its ilk are generally known as ultra-diffuse galaxies (UDGs). Whereas they are often as massive as the most important peculiar galaxies, UDGs are exceptionally dim—so dim that, in telescope surveys of the sky, “it’s a activity to filter out the noise with out by accident filtering out these galaxies,” mentioned Paul Bennet, an astronomer on the Area Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. The brilliant star-forming fuel that’s considerable in different galaxies appears to have vanished in UDGs, leaving solely a skeleton of aged stars.

Their existence has triggered a stir in galactic evolutionary principle, which didn’t predict them. “They didn’t flip up in simulations,” van Dokkum mentioned. “You must do one thing particular to make a galaxy that massive and faint.”

Wild new theories have emerged to elucidate how Dragonfly 44 and different UDGs took place. And these large smudges of sunshine could also be offering recent proof of darkish matter’s invisible hand.

Too A lot Darkish Matter

As gravity brings clumps of fuel and stars collectively, their mixed energies and momentums trigger the mashup to inflate and rotate. Finally a galaxy emerges.

There’s only one downside. As galaxies rotate, they need to come aside. They don’t seem to have sufficient mass—and thus gravity—to stay collectively. The idea of darkish matter was invented to supply the lacking gravity. On this image, a galaxy sits inside a bigger conglomeration of nonluminous particles. This darkish matter “halo” holds the spinning galaxy collectively.

One technique to estimate a galaxy’s rotation velocity, and thus its darkish matter content material, is by counting its spherical clusters of stars. “We don’t know why, from a principle perspective,” Bennet mentioned, however the variety of these “globular clusters” correlates carefully with these harder-to-measure properties. Within the 2016 paper, van Dokkum counted 94 globular clusters inside Dragonfly 44—a quantity that implied an awfully massive darkish matter halo, regardless of how little seen matter the galaxy has.

Nobody had ever seen something prefer it. Van Dokkum and co-authors steered that Dragonfly 44 could possibly be a “failed Milky Approach”: a galaxy with a Milky Approach–sized darkish matter halo that underwent a mysterious occasion early on that robbed it of its star-forming fuel, leaving it with nothing however growing old stars and an enormous halo.

Or No Darkish Matter

The item attracted the curiosity of one other camp of astronomers who argue that darkish matter doesn’t exist in any respect. These researchers clarify galaxies’ lacking gravity by tweaking Newton’s regulation of gravity as a substitute, an strategy known as modified Newtonian dynamics, or MOND.

In response to MOND, the modified gravitational power for every galaxy is calculated from the mass-to-light ratio of its stars—their complete mass divided by their luminosity. MOND theorists don’t speculate as to why the power would rely upon this ratio, however their advert hoc formulation matches the noticed speeds of most galaxies, with out the necessity to invoke darkish matter.

When information broke about Dragonfly 44, MOND advocate Stacy McGaugh, an astronomer at Case Western Reserve College, calculated from its mass-to-light ratio that it ought to rotate extra slowly than van Dokkum’s preliminary estimate indicated. The MOND calculation didn’t appear to suit the info.

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