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The uncertainty of science: Using the Hubble Space Telescope astronomers have discovered a nearby galaxy that apparently has little or no evidence of dark matter.
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. “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.”
The galaxy is unusual in many other ways.
The Hubble images also revealed the galaxy’s unusual appearance. “I spent an hour just staring at the Hubble image,” van Dokkum recalled. “It’s so rare, particularly these days after so many years of Hubble, that you get an image of something and you say, ‘I’ve never seen that before.’ This thing is astonishing: a gigantic blob that you can look through. It’s so sparse that you see all of the galaxies behind it. It is literally a see-through galaxy.”
The ghostly galaxy 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. The galaxy also shows no evidence that it houses a central black hole. Based on the colors of its globular clusters, the galaxy is about 10 billion years old. Even the globular clusters are oddballs: they are twice as large as typical stellar groupings seen in other galaxies.
The bottom line here is that we have only circumstantial evidence that dark matter exists, based solely on the fact that in all other measured galaxies, the outer stars rotate much faster than they should. That rotation speed however does not guarantee the existence of dark matter, only that something is causing the fast rotation. And the lack thereof in this galaxy puts a big crimp in the theory that dark matter exists, since the theories that posit its existence almost require it to be present in every galaxy.