September 23, 2008
Mysterious New ‘Dark Flow’ Discovered in Space
As if the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy weren't vexing
enough, another baffling cosmic puzzle has been discovered.
Patches of matter in the universe seem to be moving at very
high speeds and in a uniform direction that can't be explained by any of the
known gravitational forces in the observable universe. Astronomers are calling
the phenomenon "dark flow."
the observable universe, researchers conclude.
When scientists talk about the observable
universe, they don't just mean as far out as the eye, or even the most
powerful telescope, can see. In fact there's a fundamental limit to how much of
the universe we could ever observe, no matter how advanced our visual
instruments. The universe is thought to have formed about 13.7 billion years
ago. So even if light started travelling toward us immediately after the Big Bang,
the farthest it could ever get is 13.7 billion light-years in distance. There
may be parts of the universe that are farther away (we can't know how big the
whole universe is), but we can't see farther than light could travel over the
entire age of the universe.
Scientists discovered the flow by studying some of the
largest structures in the cosmos: giant
clusters of galaxies. These clusters are conglomerations of about a
thousand galaxies, as well as very hot gas which emits X-rays. By observing the
interaction of the X-rays with the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which is
leftover radiation from the Big Bang, scientists can study the movement of
The X-rays scatter photons in the CMB, shifting its
temperature in an effect known as the kinematic Sunyaev-Zel'dovich (SZ) effect.
This effect had not been observed as a result of galaxy clusters before, but a
team of researchers led by Alexander Kashlinsky, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., found it when they studied a huge catalogue of
700 clusters, reaching out up to 6 billion light-years, or half the universe
away. They compared this catalogue to the map
of the CMB taken by NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP)
They discovered that the clusters were moving nearly 2
million mph (3.2 million kph) toward a region in the sky between the
constellations of Centaurus and Vela. This motion is different from the outward
expansion of the universe (which is accelerated by the force called dark
"We found a very significant velocity, and furthermore,
this velocity does not decrease with distance, as far as we can measure,"
Kashlinsky told SPACE.com. "The matter in the observable universe
just cannot produce the flow we measure."
The scientists deduced that whatever is driving the
movements of the clusters must lie beyond the known universe.
A theory called inflation posits that the universe we see is
just a small bubble of space-time that got rapidly expanded after the Big Bang.
There could be other parts of the cosmos beyond this bubble that we cannot see.
In these regions, space-time might be very different, and
likely doesn't contain stars and galaxies (which only formed because of the
particular density pattern of mass in our bubble). It could include giant,
massive structures much larger than anything in our own observable universe.
These structures are what researchers suspect are tugging on the galaxy
clusters, causing the dark flow.
"The structures responsible for this motion have been
pushed so far away by inflation, I would guesstimate they may be hundreds of
billions of light years away, that we cannot see even with the deepest
telescopes because the light emitted there could not have reached us in the age
of the universe," Kashlinsky said in a telephone interview. "Most
likely to create such a coherent flow they would have to be some very strange
structures, maybe some warped space time. But this is just pure
Though inflation theory forecasts many odd facets of the
distant universe, not many scientists predicted the dark flow.
"It was greatly surprising to us and I suspect to
everyone else," Kashlinsky said. "For some particular models of
inflation you would expect these kinds of structures, and there were some
suggestions in the literature that were not taken seriously I think until
The discovery could help scientists probe what happened to
the universe before
inflation, and what's going on in those inaccessible realms we cannot see.
The researchers detail their findings in the Oct. 20 issue
of the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.