American scientists believe they are closer than ever to unlocking the mysteries of dark matter. The first findings of their research could be released in just a few weeks.
Speaking at an annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Michael Turner, director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago, said his team is very excited and he believes they are on the threshold of a major discovery.
Dark matter has been somewhat of a black sheep in physics. Physicists know it's there, they know it makes up about 23 percent of the universe, but if you want to get under their skin, just ask them to explain dark matter to you.
It simply does not work with the standard model of physics and although it's real, it often sounds like something dreamt up by Douglas Adams. The theory was originally put forward by Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky some 80 years ago, but the answers still remain elusive.
"On the cosmology side we now understand that this mysterious dark matter holds together our galaxy and the rest of the Universe," said Turner. "And the tantalizing thing on the cosmology side is that we have an airtight case that the dark matter is made of something new... there is no particle in the Standard Model that can account for dark matter."
Some theorists argue that dark matter is formed by exotic particles called WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles), that have weak interactions with visible matter identified under the Standard Model.
"The real question is why dark matter has six times the energy that is in ordinary matter," Lisa Randall of Harvard University told Rawstory. "It could be 10 trillions times bigger... This is an intriguing sign that there is maybe some other interaction we can detect."
So, since physicists don't like questions they can't answer, and since they are unlikely to get dates, they had plenty of time to come up with a solution – a $2 billion program to come up with some answers.
Their efforts rely on two weapons. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer aboard the International Space Station is designed to capture gamma rays coming from collisions of dark matter particles, while the good old Large Haron Collider could allow boffins to break up electrons, quarks or neutrinos to uncover dark matter.
However, the LHC will be shutting down for the next two years for maintenance and since quarks don't like road works, it could take some time before the research is complete.