Astronomers might have finally detected a signal emitted from dark matter - the hypothetical material that makes up most of the universe - and if confirmed, this would lead to a new era in astronomical study.
Researchers looking at European Space Agency data from the XMM Newton spacecraft found a strange spike in X-ray emissions coming from the Andromeda galaxy and the Perseus galaxy cluster.
These signals do not correspond to any known particle or atom, so could have been produced by dark matter. The findings will be published in Physical Review Letters.
The presence of dark matter is a hypothetical approach to explaining the physics problem of discrepancies in the mass of objects measured based on gravitational effects, and their mass measured on observable matter.
When physicists study galaxies and the movement of stars, they face an intrinsic problem – if they only take visible matter into account, equations do not add up. This means there must be something missing, so they deduced there is likely to be an invisible kind of matter that does not interact with light but does so with its surroundings – and this is called dark matter.
Dark matter is hypothesised to make up over 84% of the total matter of the universe.
Oleg Ruchayskiy of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Alexey Boyarsky, from the Leiden University in the Netherlands, found the signal while analysing X-rays emitted by Perseus and Andromeda.
After collecting thousands of signals, they found an anomaly that caught their attention. The signal appears as a weak abnormal photon emission that cannot be attributed to any form of matter.
Indeed, the signal corresponds exactly to what scientists were expecting to find with dark matter – "concentrated and intense in the centre of objects and weaker and diffuse on the edges," Ruchayskiy said.
"With the goal of verifying our findings, we then looked at data from our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and made the same observations," Boyarsky added.
If confirmed, the discovery will open up new areas of research for particle physics.
Speaking to Space.com, Boyarsky also noted: "It could usher in a new era in astronomy. Confirmation of this discovery may lead to construction of new telescopes specially designed for studying the signals from dark matter particles. We will know where to look in order to trace dark structures in space and will be able to reconstruct how the universe has formed."