An illustration of streams of stars flowing around a spiral galaxy.
April 15, 2024

Rubin Observatory will reveal dark matter’s ghostly disruptions of stellar streams

Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s stunningly detailed images will illuminate distant stellar streams and their past encounters with dark matter.

LSST Camera

Vera C. Rubin Observatory will search wide and deep into the cosmos for signs of dark matter and dark energy and yield new insights into our own galaxy and solar system. SLAC built Rubin's LSST Camera (above), the largest camera ever built for astrophysics. SLAC will also host Rubin's U.S. Data Facility and co-lead the observatory's operations along with NSF's NOIRLab. (Image Credit: Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

A digital sensor visible through a large lens in a white room.

Glittering threads of stars around the Milky Way may hold answers to one of our biggest questions about the Universe: what is dark matter? With images taken through six different color filters mounted to the largest camera ever built for astronomy and astrophysics, Vera C. Rubin Observatory’s upcoming Legacy Survey of Space and Time will reveal never-before-seen stellar streams around the Milky Way – and the telltale effects of their interactions with dark matter.

As mesmerizing as rivers that glitter in sunlight, stellar streams trace sparkling arcs through and around our home galaxy – the Milky Way. Stellar streams are composed of stars that were originally bound in globular clusters or dwarf galaxies, but have been disrupted by gravitational interactions with our galaxy and drawn into long, trailing lines. But these slender trails of stars often show signs of disturbance, and scientists suspect that in many cases dark matter is the culprit. Vera C. Rubin Observatory, jointly funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), will soon provide a wealth of data to illuminate stellar streams, dark matter, and their complex interactions.

Dark matter makes up 27% of the Universe, but it can’t be observed directly, and scientists currently don’t know exactly what it is. To learn more, they use a variety of indirect methods to investigate its nature. Some methods, like weak gravitational lensing, map the distribution of dark matter on large scales across the Universe. Observing stellar streams allows scientists to probe a different aspect of dark matter because they showcase the fingerprint of dark matter’s gravitational effects at small scales.

Vera C. Rubin Observatory, located in Chile, will use an 8.4-meter telescope equipped with the largest digital camera in the world to conduct a 10-year survey of the entire southern hemisphere sky beginning in late 2025. The resulting data, with images taken through six different color filters, will make it easier than ever for scientists to isolate stellar streams among and beyond the Milky Way and examine them for signs of dark matter disruption. “I'm really excited about using stellar streams to learn about dark matter,” said Nora Shipp, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University and co-convener of the Dark Matter Working Group in the Rubin Observatory/LSST Dark Energy Science Collaboration. “With Rubin Observatory we’ll be able to use stellar streams to figure out how dark matter is distributed in our galaxy from the largest scales down to very small scales.”

Rubin Observatory will begin science operations in late 2025. Rubin Observatory is a Program of NSF NOIRLab, which, along with SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, will jointly operate Rubin.

Evidence suggests that a spherical halo of dark matter surrounds the Milky Way, made up of smaller dark matter clumps. These clumps interact with other structures, disrupting their gravitational dynamics and changing their observed appearance. In the case of stellar streams, the results of dark matter interactions appear as kinks or gaps in the starry trails.

Rubin Observatory’s incredibly detailed images will make it possible for scientists to identify and examine very subtle irregularities in stellar streams, and thus infer the properties of the low-mass dark matter clumps that caused them – even narrowing down what types of particles these clumps are made of. “By observing stellar streams, we’ll be able to take indirect measurements of the Milky Way's dark matter clumps down to masses lower than ever before, giving us really good constraints on the particle properties of dark matter,” said Shipp.

Stellar streams in the outer regions of the Milky Way are especially good candidates for observing the effects of dark matter because they’re less likely to have been affected by interactions with other parts of the Milky Way, which can confuse the picture. Rubin Observatory will be able to detect stellar streams at a distance of about five times farther than we can see now, allowing scientists to discover and observe an entirely new population of stellar streams in the Milky Way’s outer regions.

Stellar streams are challenging to distinguish from the many other stars of the Milky Way. To isolate stellar streams scientists search for stars with specific properties that indicate they likely belonged together as globular clusters or dwarf galaxies. They then analyze the motion or other properties of these stars to identify those connected as a stream.

“Stellar streams are like strings of pearls, whose stars trace the path of the system’s orbit and have a shared history,” said Jaclyn Jensen, a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria who plans to use Rubin/LSST data for her research on the progenitors of stellar streams and their role in the formation of the Milky Way. “Using properties of these stars, we can determine information about their origins and what kind of interactions the stream may have experienced. If we find a pearl necklace with a few scattered pearls nearby, we can deduce that something may have come along and broken the string.”

Rubin Observatory’s 3200-megapixel LSST Camera is equipped with six color filters – including, notably for stellar stream scientists like Shipp and Jensen, an ultraviolet filter. Rubin’s ultraviolet filter will provide critical information on the blue-ultraviolet end of the light spectrum that will enable scientists to distinguish the subtle differences and untangle the stars in a stream from look-alike stars in the Milky Way. Overall, Rubin will provide scientists with thousands of deep images taken through all six filters, giving them a clearer view of stellar streams than ever before.

The avalanche of data that Rubin will provide will also inspire new tools and methods for isolating stellar streams. As Shipp notes, “Right now it’s a labor-intensive process to pick out potential streams by eye – Rubin’s large volume of data presents an exciting opportunity to think of new, more automated ways to identify streams.”

Rubin Observatory is a joint initiative of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE). Its primary mission is to carry out the Legacy Survey of Space and Time, providing an unprecedented data set for scientific research supported by both agencies. Rubin is operated jointly by NSF’s NOIRLab and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC). NOIRLab is managed for NSF by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and SLAC is operated for DOE by Stanford University. Additional contributions from a number of international organizations and teams are acknowledged.

This article is based on a release from Rubin Observatory.


About SLAC

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory explores how the universe works at the biggest, smallest and fastest scales and invents powerful tools used by researchers around the globe. As world leaders in ultrafast science and bold explorers of the physics of the universe, we forge new ground in understanding our origins and building a healthier and more sustainable future. Our discovery and innovation help develop new materials and chemical processes and open unprecedented views of the cosmos and life’s most delicate machinery. Building on more than 60 years of visionary research, we help shape the future by advancing areas such as quantum technology, scientific computing and the development of next-generation accelerators.

SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

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