Astronomers Discover Milky Way–Sized Galaxy That's 99.99% Dark Matter

At left, a wide view of the Dragonfly 44 galaxy, and at right, a close-up of the same image, revealing its large, elongated shape and halo of spherical clusters of stars around its core, similar to the halo that surrounds the Milky Way. Image credit: Pieter van Dokkum, Roberto Abraham, Gemini Observatory/AURA

An unusual galaxy, made up almost entirely of exotic “dark matter," has left astronomers and physicists scratching their heads. The galaxy, known as Dragonfly 44, is located some 300 million light-years from our own Milky Way and is about the same size as our galaxy—but a mere 100th of 1 percent of it is made up of ordinary matter. The rest—99.99 percent—is dark matter.

Dragonfly 44 actually has about as much dark matter as our galaxy, but it has far fewer stars. As a result, the dark matter almost completely dominates. “It’s kind of a dark twin of the Milky Way,” lead researcher Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University tells mental_floss.

The findings were published today in Astrophysical Journal Letters [PDF].

First proposed in the 1930s, dark matter is a mysterious form of matter believed to account for more than one-quarter of the mass and energy in the universe. (A larger proportion—more than two-thirds—is the even-more-mysterious dark energy; a mere 5 percent of the universe is made of ordinary, visible matter.) Dark matter doesn’t interact with ordinary matter—it can’t be seen with optical or radio telescopes—but its presence can be deduced through the gravitational tug that it exerts.

The fact that dark matter dominates over regular matter is not by itself a surprise: In most galaxies, van Dokkum explains, there’s about 50 times as much dark matter as ordinary matter. But in Dragonfly 44, that ratio is even more extreme, thanks to the lack of stars.

The only other galaxies known to be this heavily skewed toward dark matter are the small dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way. But Dragonfly 44 isn’t like those galaxies—rather, it’s just as large and massive as the Milky Way itself. How it ended up so dark matter–heavy, and with so few stars, is a mystery. “We thought we understood these [more massive] galaxies quite well,” says van Dokkum. “They usually have a relatively small amount of dark matter, in proportion to the number of stars that they have. This galaxy turns that on its head.”

Because of the paucity of stars, Dragonfly 44 is extremely faint. It’s one member of a new class of diffuse, dim galaxies discovered recently using the Dragonfly telescope array, an innovative imaging system that uses ultra-“fast” commercial telephoto lenses (the kind that sports photographers use) to find dim objects in the night sky. The brainchild of van Dokkum and University of Toronto astronomer Roberto Abraham, Dragonfly was tailor-made to detect objects with “low surface brightness”: While the light from stars is concentrated in specific points in the sky, galaxies are dim and their light is spread out—and these peculiar galaxies are even dimmer, and thus even harder to see. “These objects had always been missed, but with the Dragonfy telescope, we found them,” van Dokkum says.

Later, he and his colleagues aimed Hawaii’s Keck telescope at Dragonfly 44 for a closer look (because the galaxy is so dim, this required collecting data over six nights). They were able to measure the speeds of some of the galaxy’s stars, from which the total mass of the galaxy can be calculated. From the brightness and the mass, they determined how much mass is “missing”—that is, they inferred how much extra mass must be present in the form of dark matter, so as to keep the galaxy from flying apart. Observations with the Gemini North telescope, also in Hawaii, revealed a halo of spherical clusters of stars surrounding the galaxy’s core—similar to the halo known to surround our own Milky Way. “Ultimately, we may learn about the connection between dark matter and these mysterious star clusters,” van Dokkum says.

Meanwhile, the biggest mystery of all remains the identity of the dark matter itself. Physicists’ best guess is that it’s made up of some kind of primordial particle, perhaps created at the time of the big bang—but numerous attempts to detect such particles directly (including the most recent effort) have come up empty. And Dragonfly 44, being so far away, isn’t likely to help much—but in principle, other dark matter–dominated galaxies could still be awaiting detection, much closer to home. “If we found a galaxy like this, that’s close to us—that might be the ideal place to look, to make a direct detection of the dark matter particle,” van Dokkum says.

David Spergel, a Princeton University astrophysicist who was not involved in the current research, tells mental_floss that these low surface–brightness galaxies “are useful ‘laboratories’ both for studying the properties of dark matter and understanding galaxy formation.”

Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the first time this year on Friday, March 23. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This story originally ran in 2017.

science fiction
Why So Many Aliens in Pop Culture Look Familiar

Aliens have been depicted countless times in cinema, from Georges Méliès's A Trip to the Moon (1902) to James Cameron's Avatar (2009). But despite the advancements in special-effects technology over the past century, most aliens we see on screen still share a lot of similarities—mainly, they look, move, and interact with the world like humans do. Vox explains how the classic alien look came to be in their new video below.

When you picture an alien, you may imagine a being with reptilian skin or big, black eyes, but the basic components of a human body—two arms, two legs, and a head with a face—are likely all there. In reality, finding an intelligent creature that evolved all those same features on a planet millions of light-years away would be an extraordinary coincidence. If alien life does exist, it may not look like anything we've ever seen on Earth.

But when it comes to science fiction, accuracy isn't always the goal. Creating an alien character humans can relate to may take priority. Or, the alien's design may need to work as a suit that can be worn by human performers. The result is a version of extraterrestrial life that looks alien— but not too alien—to movie audiences.

So if aliens probably won't have four limbs, two eyes, and a mouth, what would they look like if we ever met them person? These experts have some theories.

[h/t Vox]


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