What Can These Cosmic Wonders Teach Us?

by Megan Ray Nichols

There’s a lot to learn from the universe. Black holes, space-time continuums and being able to look back in time are only a few of the mind-boggling oddities that are just a walk in the park for cosmologists and physicists. Recently, dark matter, galaxy cluster IDCS 1426 and the formation of an unusual-looking nebula have captured our attention. Once again, we’re stuck outside, watching the sky and wondering —how much don’t we know?

 

82772209Photo: http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/thumbnails/imag

Dark Matter Physics

Dark matter makes up about a quarter of the entire universe. The only problem is you can’t really see it. NASA has been interested in studying it for a while now, but they can only observe it indirectly, based on how it warps light. However, since dark matter is one of the most abundant matters in the universe, it’s important to try and comprehend how it works and what it does. That’s where the mystery comes in.

Dark matter has been a notoriously slippery concept to grasp. In order to better understand exactly what dark matter is, a team of scientists decided to study something seemingly unrelated: cosmic collisions. In this case, scientists used the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory to watch what happens when galaxy clusters collide.

This is an interesting idea because researchers were aware of what the other particles would do in this collision, but they didn’t know what to expect from the dark matter. Hubble was responsible for watching to see if the light warp was different, and the Chandra picked up on X-ray emissions from the collisions.

The galaxy clusters are mostly made of galaxies, gas and dark matter. The galaxies usually pass each other by with relative ease since they’re incredibly big and incredibly far apart. Their distance is usually great enough to overcome their individual gravitational pulls. The gas clouds that surround the galaxies, however, really smash around. They slow down drastically and may even stop.

After studying 72 different collisions, they discovered that, amazingly, dark matter doesn’t interact with itself to speak of. It didn’t slow down or stop. Dark matter, similar to the galaxies, was hardly fazed by the collision. Basically, it means that dark matter has significantly less frictional force than originally thought.

While this team didn’t discover what dark matter is exactly, they did determine some important properties about it. Eventually, this can help to narrow down what it is — even if we don’t have an exact answer right now.

8836935Photo: http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/thum

Weight is a difficult thing to measure when you’re dealing with cosmic phenomena. In the case of IDCS 1426, the interest in the cluster stems partly from its age. It’s thought that as we view the cluster, we are actually seeing its formation and development. It’s the biggest cluster we’ve been able to detect at such a young age.

It appears to have formed very rapidly as well since the distribution of hot gas is pretty smooth and symmetrical. Plus, a low concentration of heavier elements helps to indicate that the cluster is still evolving.

This is important for a few reasons, but the most important is that it can give us clues about how the universe formed. There are plenty of theories about how galaxies and clusters began, but it’s difficult to find observable proof. Because of how far away this particular galaxy cluster is, NASA thinks that we are actually seeing it as it formed — about 10 billion years ago. This is pretty much the closest to an observable answer as we have to knowing if the Big Bang Theory is, indeed, accurate.

So far, IDCS 1426 isn’t contradicting what we already theorized about the formation of the universe, and it’s expanding our understanding of it. But it’s still tough to say if it’s confirming anything. With questions this big, we just need to keep exploring!

15060163Photo: http://www.nasa.gov/images/content/14477

The Double Helix Nebula

The familiar model of DNA, a double helix is well known in the microscopic world — but how did it suddenly pop up in middle of our cosmos? Originally discovered in 2006, the Double Helix Nebula was the first of its kind to be found. So far, it’s still the only one.

The unusual form of this nebula appears to be the result of two nebulas being twisted around by magnetic torsion. Basically, that means there is a strong magnetic force in our galaxy that is pulling two nebulas together in a fairly unusual way.

The Double Helix Nebula is estimated to be about 80 light years long, making it the biggest double helix around. Since it’s approximately 300 light years from the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, the nebula is much closer to that black hole than we are. Earth is about 26,000 light years away. This is just one example of things that exist in our own cosmic backyard that we never even thought to look for, let alone understand!

These three discoveries all open new doors and help us to expand our knowledge of our universe. After all, we might one day move planets, but this is the only universe we’ll ever get. It’d be a good idea to try and learn about it.

About The Author

Megan Ray Nichols enjoys writing about astronomy and other scientific fields on her blog, Schooled By Science.

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