Dark matter may have turned spinning stars into black holes near the center of our galaxy, researchers say. There, scientists expected to see plenty of the dense, rotating stars called pulsars, which are fairly common throughout the Milky Way. Despite numerous searches, however, only one has been found, giving rise to the so-called “missing pulsar problem.” A possible explanation, according to a new study, is that dark matter has built up inside these stars, causing the pulsars to collapse into black holes. (These black holes would be smaller than the supermassive black hole that is thought to lurk at the very heart of the galaxy.)
The universe appears to be teeming with invisible dark matter, which can neither be seen nor touched, but nonetheless exerts a gravitational pull on regular matter. Scientists have several ideas for what dark matter might be made of, but none have been proved. A leading option suggests that dark matter is composed of particles called weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), which are traditionally thought to be both matter and antimatter in one. The nature of antimatter is important for the story. When matter and antimatter meet they destroy one another in powerful explosions—so when two regular WIMPs collide, they would annihilate one another.
But it is also possible that dark matter comes in two varieties—matter and antimatter versions, just like regular matter. If this idea—called asymmetric dark matter—is true, then two dark matter particles would not destroy one another nor would two dark antimatter particles, but if one of each type met, the two would explode. In this scenario both types of dark matter should have been created in abundance during the big bang (just as both regular matter and regular antimatter are thought to have been created) but most of these particles would have destroyed one another, and those that that remain now would be just the small excess of one type that managed to avoid being annihilated.
If dark matter is asymmetric, it would behave differently from the vanilla version of WIMPs. For example, the dense centers of stars should gravitationally attract nearby dark matter. If dark matter is made of regular WIMPS, when two WIMPs meet at the center of a star they would destroy one another, because they are their own antimatter counterparts. But in the asymmetric dark matter picture, all the existing dark matter left today is made of just one of its two types—either matter or antimatter. If two of these like particles met, they would not annihilate, so dark matter would simply build up over time inside the star. Eventually, the star’s core would become too heavy to support itself, thereby collapsing into a black hole. This is what may have happened to the pulsars at the Milky Way’s center, according to a study published November 3 in Physical Review Letters.
The scenario is plausible, says Raymond Volkas, a physicist at the University of Melbourne who was not involved in the study, but the missing pulsar problem might easily turn out to have a mundane explanation through known stellar effects. “It would, of course, be exciting to have dramatic direct astrophysical evidence for asymmetric dark matter,” Volkas says. “Before believing an asymmetric dark matter explanation, I would want to be convinced that no standard explanation is actually viable.”
The authors of the study, Joseph Bramante of the University of Notre Dame and Tim Linden of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago, agree that it is too early to jump to a dark matter conclusion. For example, Linden says, maybe radio observations of the galactic center are not as thorough as scientists have assumed and the missing pulsars will show up with better searches. It is also possible some quirk of star formation has limited the number of pulsars that formed at the galactic center.
The reason nearby pulsars would not be as affected by asymmetric dark matter is that dark matter, of any kind, should be densest at the cores of galaxies, where it should congregate under the force of its own gravity. And even there it should take dark matter a very long time to accumulate enough to destroy a pulsar because most dark particles pass right through stars without interacting. Only on the rare occasions when one flies extremely close to a regular particle can it collide, and then it will be caught there. In normal stars the regular particles at the cores are not dense enough to catch many dark matter ones. But in superdense pulsars they might accumulate enough to do damage. “Dark matter can’t collect as densely or as quickly at the center of regular stars,” Bramante says, “but in pulsars the dark matter would collect into about a two-meter ball. Then that ball collapses into a black hole and it sucks up the pulsar.”
If this scenario is right, one consequence would be that pulsars should live longer the farther away they are from the dark matter–dense galactic center. At the far reaches of the Milky Way, for example, pulsars might live to ripe old ages; near the core, however, pulsars would be created and then quickly destroyed before they could age. “Nothing astrophysical predicts a very strong relation between the age of a pulsar and its distance from the center of a galaxy,” Linden says. “You would really see a stunning effect if this scenario held.” It is also possible, although perhaps not probable, that astronomers could observe a pulsar collapse into a black hole, verifying the theory. But once the black hole is created, it would be near impossible to detect: As dark matter and black holes are each unobservable, black holes made of dark matter would be doubly invisible.