Dark matter may reveal itself as a subtle glow from pulsating stars

The ongoing quest to unveil the secrets of dark matter revolves around a fundamental question: What exactly constitutes this enigmatic substance? One intriguing theory posits that dark matter could be composed of minuscule particles known as axions. A collaborative team of astrophysicists, spearheaded by researchers hailing from the universities of Amsterdam and Princeton, has recently made strides in this pursuit. Their findings, now published in the journal Physical Review Letters, suggest that if dark matter indeed consists of axions, it might manifest itself through a subtle yet discernible radiance emitted by pulsating stars.

Dark matter represents one of the most elusive components of our universe. Paradoxically, this mysterious substance, which has thus far eluded detection by physicists and astronomers, is believed to constitute a significant portion of the cosmos. It’s estimated that a whopping 85% of the matter in the universe remains “dark” — currently observable solely through its gravitational influence on other celestial bodies. Naturally, scientists yearn for more profound insights. Their ambition extends beyond gravitational inference; they aspire to directly observe or at least unequivocally confirm the presence of dark matter and, ultimately, decipher its true nature.

Cleaning up two problems

One undeniable fact emerges: dark matter cannot conform to the same mold as the matter composing us and the world around us. Should that be the case, dark matter would mimic the behavior of ordinary matter, coalescing into luminous structures like stars and forfeiting its “dark” essence. Consequently, scientists embark on a quest for an entirely novel entity—a particle that has thus far eluded detection, one that likely interacts only faintly with the familiar particles we know. This enigma has preserved its secrecy for far too long.

Numerous clues beckon in the search for this elusive entity. A prevailing hypothesis posits that axions might hold the key. Initially conceived in the 1970s to resolve an unrelated quandary involving the minute separation of positive and negative charges within neutrons, axions have emerged as promising candidates. Scientists sought to comprehend this intriguing anomaly.

As it turned out, the solution lay in the existence of a heretofore undetected particle, one that exerted exceedingly feeble interactions with the constituents of neutrons, thus explaining the anomaly. The Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek christened this new particle “axion,” a moniker both reminiscent of established particle names such as proton, neutron, electron, and photon and inspired by a household detergent bearing the same name. The axion was conceived to address this conundrum.

Intriguingly, despite remaining undetected, axions could potentially address another enigma. Various theories of elementary particles, including the prominent string theory, which aspires to unify all natural forces, suggested the existence of axion-like particles. If indeed axions exist, could they constitute a portion, if not the entirety, of the elusive dark matter? The question looms, but an additional dilemma haunts all dark matter investigations: if axions are the answer, how do we unveil the “dark” and make it visible?

Shining a light on dark matter

Fortunately, there appears to be a potential escape route from this perplexing enigma when it comes to axions. According to the theories that predict the existence of axions, these particles are not only expected to be generated in significant quantities throughout the universe, but some of them could also undergo a transformation into light when exposed to strong electromagnetic fields. Where there is light, there is visibility. Could this hold the key to unmasking axions and, in turn, unveiling the presence of dark matter?

To address this pivotal question, scientists embarked on a journey to identify the locales in the cosmos where the most formidable electric and magnetic fields exist. The answer lies in the vicinity of rapidly spinning neutron stars, often referred to as pulsars. These pulsars, abbreviated from “pulsating stars,” are dense celestial objects boasting a mass roughly akin to that of our sun, yet their radius is minuscule—only about 10 kilometers, around 100,000 times smaller. Due to their diminutive size, pulsars exhibit extraordinary rotation rates, emitting focused beams of radio emission along their rotational axes, akin to the sweeping beacon of a lighthouse. This distinctive trait makes pulsating stars readily observable from Earth.

However, the prodigious spin of pulsars confers another remarkable quality upon them: they become prodigious electromagnets. This, in turn, suggests that pulsars could serve as highly efficient axion factories. In the span of just one second, an average pulsar has the potential to generate an astronomical quantity of axions, a number boasting a whopping 50 digits. Due to the potent electromagnetic field enveloping the pulsar, a fraction of these axions could undergo a metamorphosis into detectable light. The catch, of course, is whether axions truly exist at all. But this mechanism provides a path to answer that very question. The approach is clear: observe pulsars, scrutinize any additional light emissions, and ascertain whether this surplus radiance might be attributed to axions.

Simulating a subtle glow

In the realm of science, executing such an observation is far from a straightforward endeavor. The light emitted by axions, discernible in the form of radio waves, constitutes merely a minute fraction of the total luminosity emanating from these radiant celestial lighthouses. To differentiate between what a pulsar devoid of axions would appear like and what one teeming with axions would exhibit, precise knowledge is imperative. Moreover, quantifying this distinction and translating it into a measure of dark matter demands an intricate approach.

Enter a dedicated team of physicists and astronomers hailing from the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United States. They’ve undertaken a collaborative effort to construct an intricate theoretical framework, a blueprint of sorts, facilitating a comprehensive comprehension of the axion production process, their escape from the gravitational clutches of neutron stars, and their transformation into low-energy radio radiation during this escape.

The theoretical findings were then brought to life through computer modeling, a digital recreation of axion production encircling pulsars. This endeavor employed cutting-edge numerical plasma simulations initially designed to fathom the intricacies of how pulsars emit radio waves. By virtually generating axions and simulating their journey through the electromagnetic terrain of neutron stars, the researchers gained a quantitative understanding of the ensuing radio wave production. This modeling exercise unveiled how this intricate process would bestow an additional radio signal, overlaying the intrinsic emissions originating from the pulsar itself.

Putting axion models to a test

The theories and simulations, having paved the way, were then subjected to their maiden empirical trial. Drawing upon observations gleaned from 27 proximate pulsars, the research team embarked on a meticulous comparison between the actual radio wave data and their painstakingly constructed models. Their objective was clear: to discern any hint of an excess that might furnish substantiation for the presence of axions. Regrettably, the outcome yielded a “no” as its response—or, perhaps more optimistically, a “not yet.” Axions didn’t readily disclose themselves, but perhaps such a revelation was never to be anticipated. If dark matter were willing to relinquish its enigma with such ease, it would have already succumbed to detection long ago.

The prospect of an unequivocal detection of axions now hinges on forthcoming observations. In the meantime, the current absence of radio signals from axions holds intrinsic interest. This inaugural juxtaposition of simulations with real-world pulsar data has, in fact, imposed the most stringent constraints to date on the hypothetical interactions axions could entertain with light.

Undoubtedly, the ultimate aim transcends mere constraint-setting. It aspires to either establish the existence of axions or, conversely, significantly diminish the likelihood of axions comprising a portion of dark matter. These fresh findings mark only the initial stride in that direction, inaugurating what could potentially burgeon into an entirely novel and profoundly interdisciplinary field. Such a domain possesses the potential to catalyze significant progress in the relentless quest for axions.

Source: University of Amsterdam

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