Authors: Clemente Smarra, Boris Goncharov, Enrico Barausse, J. Antoniadis, S. Babak, A.-S. Bak Nielsen, C. G. Bassa, A. Berthereau, M. Bonetti, E. Bortolas, P. R. Brook, M. Burgay, R. N. Caballero, A. Chalumeau, D. J. Champion, S. Chanlaridis, S. Chen, I. Cognard, G. Desvignes, M. Falxa, R. D. Ferdman, A. Franchini, J. R. Gair, E. Graikou, J.-M. Grießmeier, L. Guillemot, Y. J. Guo, H. Hu, F. Iraci, D. Izquierdo-Villalba, J. Jang, J. Jawor, G. H. Janssen, A. Jessner, R. Karuppusamy, E. F. Keane, M. J. Keith, M. Kramer, M. A. Krishnakumar, K. Lackeos, K. J. Lee, K. Liu, Y. Liu, A. G. Lyne, J. W. McKee, R. A. Main, M. B. Mickaliger, I. C. Niţu, A. Parthasarathy, B. B. P. Perera, D. Perrodin, A. Petiteau, N. K. Porayko, A. Possenti, H. Quelquejay Leclere, A. Samajdar, S. A. Sanidas, A. Sesana, G. Shaifullah, L. Speri, R. Spiewak, B. W. Stappers, S. C. Susarla, G. Theureau, C. Tiburzi, E. van der Wateren, A. Vecchio, V. Venkatraman Krishnan, J. Wang, L. Wang, and Z. Wu
First Author’s Institution: International School for Advanced Studies, Via Bonomea 265, Trieste, Italy and INFN, Sezione di Trieste; Institute for Fundamental Physics of the Universe, Via Beirut 2, Trieste, Italy
Status: Published in Physical Review Letters [refereed version is free to read here until the end of 2023]
Our Universe is positively thrumming, and so was the astrophysics community when members of the International Pulsar Timing Array (IPTA) made coordinated announcements in June of this year revealing signals consistent with a statistically random or stochastic gravitational wave background. The data behind the announcement and some of their implications are described in more detail in these bites. For the purposes of today’s bite, we’ll wander a bit further afield: what does this same data say about dark matter in our galaxy?
Stellar lighthouses as galactic clocks
Before understanding what the IPTA has to do with dark matter, we should understand what it has to do with…well, pulsars! Pulsars are neutron stars with two important jobs: to rotate and emit jets of light.
The first is achieved in the process of becoming a neutron star: somewhere in the Universe, a supernova explodes, turning a massive star that’s run its course into a neutron star and giving it a lot of spin in the process. This can make pulsars reach extremely steady periods of a few seconds or even down to milliseconds! Pulsars also have strong magnetic fields which serve to align jets of particles along the two magnetic poles of the star, but generally not with the axis of spin. This means the jets will “pulse” along the line of sight as the spin turns one of the jets towards the Earth, earning pulsars both their name and their standard description as ‘stellar lighthouses.’
Together, these two properties make pulsars extraordinary clocks, as the time of arrival (TOA) of a pulsar’s light is very strictly set by the speed of light and distance between us and the pulsar. This is particularly true of pulsars with periods on the order of milliseconds (MSPs), as they are less prone to being disturbed by astrophysical events like accretion which can affect the period of their slower-spinning siblings. This means that any change in the TOA from these pulsars is likely to be due to a change in the travel time—and, therefore, distance—to our detectors. The IPTA member collaborations use this fact to look for gravitational waves, which are one way to alter the distance traversed by the pulsars’ photons. Today, we are considering a totally different way of changing the path of their light.
Pulsars are stars, and so live embedded in a galaxy; in fact, most of the ones we know live in our own galaxy. Our galaxy, in turn, lives in its own dark matter halo. While we have a general idea of the shape of this halo, we know very little about the dark matter that makes it up. One option is called Fuzzy Dark Matter (FDM): a dark matter candidate so light (around 10-22 eV) that we no longer describe it with a bunch of individual particles but as one wavefunction predicting where large numbers of particles are likely to be, similar to the hydrogen atom in quantum mechanics. The exact mass of the dark matter also sets its ‘correlation length’—aka, the distance over which the wavefunction evolves in unison. This “wavy” behavior of FDM makes its gravitational potential oscillate periodically, pulling the pulsars slightly closer then farther away from the Earth like buoys out on a sea with waves.
The authors of today’s paper are members of the European Pulsar Timing Array (EPTA) who decided to look for evidence for FDM in the EPTA data. To do this, there are three important distances to consider: the average distance between the pulsars (the buoys in this analogy), the average distance between the pulsars and the Earth (the distance of buoys to the shore, where the observer is standing), and the correlation length of FDM (the size of the wave). The first two are known quantities from the PTA dataset; the last is unknown but depends on the mass of the FDM particle, so testing which distances are allowed by the data gives us exclusions on possible particle masses. When comparing the lengths, there are three options:
- If the correlation length of FDM is the smallest of the three, the pulsars are riding different waves, and so their movement is uncorrelated.
- If the correlation length is larger than the pulsar-pulsar or pulsar-Earth distances, but smaller than the part of the halo we know about from rotation curves (about 20 kpc). This is analogous to the wave being larger than the distance between the buoys or from the buoys to the shore, but smaller than the distance to the horizon. This means the dark matter halo’s density and the pulsar data aren’t being measured over quite the same patch of sky, leading to slightly different statistics in the analysis. The authors call this case pulsar-correlated.
- If the correlation length is larger than the other two lengths and stretches beyond 20 kpc; in other words, the entire swath of the sea we can observe is affected by one really big wave. In this case, the two patches of the sky benign analyzed are the same, and the movement of the buoys is fully correlated.
Analyzing the EPTA dataset with each of these assumptions in mind yielded the results illustrated in Fig. 1. Rather than fully ruling out FDM in certain mass ranges, the authors put limits on the maximum percentage of dark matter that could be FDM. For masses between 10-24 and 10-23.7 eV, that percentage is only around 30%; for masses up to 10-23.3 eV, it’s closer to 70%. Above that mass, FDM is not constrained by current PTA data, and FDM is free to ride its wave into the sunset…for now.
Astrobite edited by William Lamb
Featured image credit: Luna Zagorac (The original pulsar data inside the surfboard is in “Radio Observations of the Pulse Profiles and Dispersion Measures of Twelve Pulsars,” by Harold D. Craft, Jr. )