Reference:

What is Dark Matter?

Hubble Finds Dark Matter Ring in Galaxy Cluster
This Hubble Space Telescope composite image shows a ghostly "ring" of dark matter in the galaxy cluster Cl 0024+17.
Credit: NASA, ESA, M.J. Jee and H. Ford (Johns Hopkins University)

Roughly 80 percent of the mass of the universe is made up of material that scientists cannot directly observe. Known as dark matter, this bizarre ingredient does not emit light or energy. So why do scientists think it dominates?

Studies of other galaxies in the 1950s first indicated that the universe contained more matter than seen by the naked eye. Support for dark matter has grown, and although no solid direct evidence of dark matter has been detected, there have been strong possibilities in recent years.

The familiar material of the universe, known as baryonic matter, is composed of protons, neutrons and electrons. Dark matter may be made of baryonic or non-baryonic matter. To hold the elements of the universe together, dark matter must make up approximately 80 percent of its matter. [Image Gallery: Dark Matter Across the Universe]

The missing matter could simply be more challenging to detect, made up of regular, baryonic matter. Potential candidates include dim brown dwarfs, white dwarfs and neutrino stars. Supermassive black holes could also be part of the difference. But these hard-to-spot objects would have to play a more dominant role than scientists have observed to make up the missing mass, while other elements suggest that dark matter is more exotic.

Swarm of Dark Matter Around the Milky Way
These illustrations, taken from computer simulations, show a swarm of dark matter clumps around our Milky Way galaxy. Image released July 10, 2012.
Credit: J. Tumlinson (STScI)

Most scientists think that dark matter is composed of non-baryonic matter. The lead candidate, WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles), have ten to a hundred times the mass of a proton, but their weak interactions with "normal" matter make them difficult to detect. Neutralinos, massive hypothetical particles heavier and slower than neutrinos, are the foremost candidate, though they have yet to be spotted. The smaller neutral axion and the uncharched photinos are also potential placeholders for dark matter.

A third possibility exists — that the laws of gravity that have thus far successfully described the motion of objects within the solar system require revision.

Proving the unseen

If scientists can't see dark matter, how do they know it exists?

Scientists calculate the mass of large objects in space by studying their motion. Astronomers examining spiral galaxies in the 1950s expected to see material in the center moving faster than on the outer edges. Instead, they found the stars in both locations traveled at the same velocity, indicating the galaxies contained more mass than could be seen. Studies of the gas within elliptical galaxies also indicated a need for more mass than found in visible objects. Clusters of galaxies would fly apart if the only mass they contained were visible to conventional astronomical measurements.

Albert Einstein showed that massive objects in the universe bend and distort light, allowing them to be used as lenses. By studying how light is distorted by galaxy clusters, astronomers have been able to create a map of dark matter in the universe.

All of these methods provide a strong indication that the most of the matter in the universe is something yet unseen.

Dark matter versus dark energy

Although dark matter makes up most of the matter of the universe, it only makes up about a quarter of the composition. The universe is dominated by dark energy.

After the Big Bang, the universe began expanding outward. Scientists once thought that it would eventually run out of the energy, slowing down as gravity pulled the objects inside it together. But studies of distant supernovae revealed that the universe today is expanding faster than it was in the past, not slower, indicating that the expansion is accelerating. This would only be possible if the universe contained enough energy to overcome gravity — dark energy.

— Nola Taylor Redd, SPACE.com Contributor

More from Space.com