Washington, August 28 : By analyzing light from small, faint galaxies that orbit the Milky Way, scientists have discovered the minimum mass for galaxies in the universe, which they estimate to be 10 million times the mass of the sun.
Discovered by UC (University of California) Irvine scientists, this mass could be the smallest known "building block" of the mysterious, invisible substance called dark matter.
Stars that form within these building blocks clump together and turn into galaxies.
Scientists know very little about the microscopic properties of dark matter, even though it accounts for approximately five-sixths of all matter in the universe.
"By knowing this minimum galaxy mass, we can better understand how dark matter behaves, which is essential to one day learning how our universe and life as we know it came to be," said Louis Strigari, lead author of this study and a McCue Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UCI.
Dark matter governs the growth of structure in the universe. Without it, galaxies like our own Milky Way would not exist.
Scientists know how dark matter's gravity attracts normal matter and causes galaxies to form. They also suspect that small galaxies merge over time to create larger galaxies such as our Milky Way.
The smallest known galaxies, called dwarf galaxies, vary greatly in brightness, from 1,000 times the luminosity of the sun to 10 million times the luminosity of the sun.
At least 22 of these dwarf galaxies are known to orbit the Milky Way.
UCI scientists studied 18 of them using data obtained with the Keck telescope in Hawaii and the Magellan telescope in Chile, with the goal of calculating their masses.
By analyzing stars' light in each galaxy, they determined how fast the stars were moving. Using those speeds, they calculated the mass of each galaxy.
The researchers expected the masses to vary, with the brightest galaxy weighing the most and the faintest galaxy weighing the least.
But surprisingly, all dwarf galaxies had the same mass - 10 million times the mass of the sun.
Since dwarf galaxies are mostly dark matter - the ratio of dark matter to normal matter is as large as 10,000 to one - the minimum-mass discovery reveals a fundamental property of dark matter.
"We are excited because these galaxies are virtually invisible, yet contain a tremendous amount of dark matter," said James Bullock, a study co-author and director of UCI's Center for Cosmology.
"This helps us better understand the particle that makes up dark matter, and it teaches us something about how galaxies form in the universe," he added.