We see normal matter as brightly shining stars, glowing gas and clouds of dust. But the more elusive dark matter does not emit, absorb or reflect light and can only be observed via its gravitational effects. The presence of dark matter can explain why the outer parts of nearby spiral galaxies rotate more quickly than would be expected if only the normal matter that we can see directly were present.
Schematic representation of rotating disc galaxies in the early Universe (right) and the present day (left). Observations with ESO's Very Large Telescope suggest that such massive star-forming disc galaxies in the early Universe were less influenced by dark matter (shown in red), as it was less concentrated. As a result the outer parts of distant galaxies rotate more slowly than comparable regions of galaxies in the local Universe.
Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
What they found was intriguing: unlike spiral galaxies in the modern Universe, the outer regions of these distant galaxies seem to be rotating more slowly than regions closer to the core -- suggesting there is less dark matter present than expected.
"Surprisingly, the rotation velocities are not constant, but decrease further out in the galaxies," comments Reinhard Genzel, lead author of the Nature paper. "There are probably two causes for this. Firstly, most of these early massive galaxies are strongly dominated by normal matter, with dark matter playing a much smaller role than in the Local Universe. Secondly, these early discs were much more turbulent than the spiral galaxies we see in our cosmic neighbourhood."
Both effects seem to become more marked as astronomers look further and further back in time, into the early Universe. This suggests that 3 to 4 billion years after the Big Bang , the gas in galaxies had already efficiently condensed into flat, rotating discs, while the dark matter halos surrounding them were much larger and more spread out. Apparently it took billions of years longer for dark matter to condense as well, so its dominating effect is only seen on the rotation velocities of galaxy discs today
Comparison of rotating disc galaxies in the distant Universe and the present day. The imaginary galaxy on the left is in the nearby Universe and the stars in its outer parts are orbiting rapidly due to the presence of large amounts of dark matter around the central regions. On the other hand the galaxy at the right, which is in the distant Universe, and seen as it was about ten billion years ago, is rotating more slowly in its outer parts as dark matter is more diffuse. The size of the difference is exaggerated in this schematic view to make the effect clearer.
This explanation is consistent with observations showing that early galaxies were much more gas-rich and compact than today's galaxies.
The six galaxies mapped in this study were among a larger sample of a hundred distant, star-forming discs imaged with the KMOS and SINFONI instruments at ESO's Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. In addition to the individual galaxy measurements described above, an average rotation curve was created by combining the weaker signals from the other galaxies. This composite curve also showed the same decreasing velocity trend away from the centres of the galaxies. In addition, two further studies of 240 star forming discs also support these findings.
Detailed modelling shows that while normal matter typically accounts for about half of the total mass of all galaxies on average, it completely dominates the dynamics of galaxies at the highest redshifts.
The data analysed were obtained with the integral field spectrometers KMOS and SINFONI at ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile in the framework of the KMOS3D and SINS/zC-SINF surveys. It is the first time that such a comprehensive study of the dynamics of a large number of galaxies spanning the redshift interval from z~0.6 to 2.6, or 5 billion years of cosmic time, has been carried out.
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This research was presented in a paper entitled "Strongly baryon dominated disk galaxies at the peak of galaxy formation ten billion years ago", by R. Genzel et al., to appear in the journal Nature.