The hunt for dark matter turns to subhalos

A team of astrophysicists is looking for dark matter in the form of subhalos. These clumps of dark matter within the Milky Way are predicted to produce a distinctive gamma-ray signal. Image courtesy of The Aquarius Project

In addition to teaching us about pulsars, cosmic rays and supermassive black holes, the Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope is one of the world’s premier dark matter experiments. In many models, the interactions of dark matter particles can create energetic photons, known as gamma rays. Fermi provides us with our most sensitive view of the gamma-ray sky and is able to test many of our most promising theories of dark matter.

Over the past several years, my collaborators and I have published a series of papers describing an excess of gamma rays from the region surrounding the center of the Milky Way. After many long discussions, arguments and debates, the majority of the gamma-ray astrophysics community seems to have reached a consensus that this excess is real and is in need of an explanation. One exciting possibility is that these gamma rays could be produced by dark matter particles. But even though this signal looks very much like what we expected from dark matter, we can’t entirely rule out other explanations, such as a series of recent outbursts of cosmic rays or some unknown population of faint gamma-ray sources.

One way to potentially confirm a dark matter origin for this excess would be to observe the same spectrum of gamma rays from otherwise invisible clumps of dark matter — known as subhalos — elsewhere in the sky. In fact, if the gamma rays from the Galactic Center do come from dark matter particles, we estimate that Fermi should be able to detect a handful of these subhalos as bright gamma-ray sources. The challenge is that Fermi has detected hundreds of bright, unidentified sources, the vast majority of which are not related to dark matter. This large haystack of sources makes it hard to find the dark matter subhalos that are the needles we are looking for.

But in one important respect, dark matter subhalos should look different from other kinds of gamma-ray sources: They should be slightly extended or “puffy.” My collaborators (Bridget Bertoni of the University of Washington and Tim Linden of the University of Chicago) and I have recently found evidence that some of Fermi’s unidentified sources are in fact extended, making them seem more likely to be dark matter subhalos. We continue to scrutinize the data, and although we’re not prepared to claim discovery yet, we are very excited that this new information might make it possible to independently test — and maybe even confirm — a dark matter origin for Fermi’s Galactic Center gamma-ray excess.

Dan Hooper