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China's Dark Matter Space Probe Detects Tantalizing Signal

Nov 30, 2017     Email"> PrintText Size

A long-standing challenge in physics has been finding evidence for dark matter, the stuff presumed to make up a substantial chunk of the mass of the universe. Its existence seems to be responsible for the structure of the universe and the formation and evolution of galaxies. But physicists have yet to observe this mysterious material.

Results reported today by a China-led space science mission provide a tantalizing hint—but not firm evidence—for dark matter. Perhaps more significantly, the first observational data produced by China’s first mission dedicated to astrophysics shows that the country is set to become a force in space science, says David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton University. China is now "making significant contributions to astrophysics and space science," he says.

Physicists have inferred the existence of dark matter from its gravitational effect on visible matter. But it has never been observed.

China’s Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE) was designed to try to fill that gap, by looking for an indirect decay signal of a hypothetical dark matter candidate called weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs). Researchers launched the spacecraft from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, about 1600 kilometers west of Beijing, in December 2015. Its primary instrument—a stack of thin, crisscrossed detector strips—is tuned to observe the incoming direction, energy, and electric charge of the particles that make up cosmic rays, particularly electrons and positrons, the antimatter counterparts of electrons. Cosmic rays emanate from conventional astrophysical objects, like exploding supernovae in the galaxy. But if dark matter consists of WIMPs, these would occasionally annihilate each other and create electron-positron pairs, which might be detected as an excess over the expected abundance of particles from conventional objects.

In its first 530 days of scientific observations, DAMPE detected 1.5 million cosmic ray electrons and positrons above a certain energy threshold. When researchers plot of the number of particles against their energy, they’d expect to see a smooth curve. But previous experiments have hinted at an anomalous break in the curve. Now, DAMPE has confirmed that deviation. “It may be evidence of dark matter,” but the break in the curve “may be from some other cosmic ray source,” says astrophysicist Chang Jin, who leads the collaboration at the Chinese Academy of Science’s (CAS’s) Purple Mountain Observatory (PMO) in Nanjing. The DAMPE results appear online today in Nature.

For more details, please refer to http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/11/china-s-dark-matter-space-probe-detects-tantalizing-signal.

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(Editor: CHEN Na)

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