If it looks like dark matter and acts like dark matter …

An intensity map of the (1- to 3-GeV) gamma-ray excess seen in the direction around the Galactic Center. The spectrum, spatial distribution and brightness of this signal agree well with that expected from annihilating dark matter particles.

Are we seeing dark matter in the gamma-ray sky? It sure looks that way.

Since early in the mission of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, a number of scientists have noticed an interesting and fairly bright signal coming from the direction of the Galactic Center. Lisa Goodenough, then of New York University, and I wrote the first couple of papers on this observation in 2009 and 2010. What especially captured our attention was that the spectrum and spatial shape of this signal seemed to match what had been predicted to come from annihilating dark matter particles — an intriguing hint indeed.

The motivation for using gamma-ray telescopes to look for dark matter is simple. In many (if not most) theories of dark matter, when pairs of dark matter particles interact, they can annihilate each other, producing other kinds of energetic particles in their place. Given the large densities of dark matter that are present around the Galactic Center, dark matter particles are expected to annihilate there at a high rate, producing large fluxes of energetic gamma rays.

In our new analysis, we reduced background contamination by making use of only the best-reconstructed events. We also performed a large number of tests and cross checks, many of which had not been carried out before. We examined multiple variations in our background model and looked for anything that might masquerade as a signal. What we found was remarkable: The signal from the Galactic Center was not only robust and statistically significant, but in every respect we could measure, it looked like annihilating dark matter.

The resemblance was astonishing. First, the shape of the observed gamma ray spectrum is in excellent agreement with what we would expect from dark matter particles with a mass of about 35 GeV. Second, the spatial distribution of the photons looks very much like what we calculate based on numerical simulations, approximately spherically symmetric and falling off rapidly with distance from the Galactic Center. And third, the overall brightness of the gamma-ray signal implies a dark matter annihilation cross section (times relative velocity) of about 2×10-26 cm3/s, which is almost exactly the value predicted for a generic dark matter species that was produced in the big bang.

Although one can never be completely certain in science, and future observations and analysis related to this signal will be very important, this gamma-ray signal does look remarkably like annihilating dark matter. If so, it would represent the first detection of dark matter particles. It is an exciting time to be hunting for dark matter.

Learn more about the finding in our new paper, which describes in more detail our updated analysis of the Fermi telescope’s gamma-ray data.

Dan Hooper