China makes historic breakthrough in study of dark matter

Photo: Maxwell Hamilton

China has once again come under the global spotlight because of an unprecedented discovery in the mysterious cosmos.

Recently, scientists announced in a report published in the journal Nature that the China-developed Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE), or "Wukong", nicknamed after Monkey King Sun Wukong in the Chinese fairytale "Journey to the West", had detected an anomalous fluctuation in the cosmic ray signals. The discovery, which is described as a "historic breakthrough" in human's efforts of exploring the massively unknown universe, may indicate the existence of dark matter, a mysterious substance which astronomers believe accounts for roughly 25 percent of the universe.

Likely made up of unknown sub-atomic material, dark matter is invisible to telescopes because it does not reflect light, and can be perceived only through its gravitational pull on other objects in the cosmos.

"The latest discovery by 'Wukong' is a significant breakthrough that can advance the original research (on dark matter)," said Bai Chunli, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"After collecting more data, if we can prove that the discovery has something to do with dark matter, it will be an epoch-making scientific achievement. And if not, it is still significant because they would be fresh new particles that no one had predicted before," added Bai.

There must be something "eccentric" because the anomaly detected in the energy spectrum change which should be a smooth curve presented as a "pinnacle", said Chang Jin, chief scientist for the DAMPE satellite and vice director of the Purple Mountain Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

"Proving the existence of dark matter takes a lot of time. We have now worked out the most precious spectrum, but we are not sure 100 percent that this can lead us to the location of dark matter," said Chang.

The DAMPE satellite is currently collecting more data from the outer space to help scientists figure out what it could be.

The DAMPE satellite, which is built by the Chinese Academy of Sciences in cooperation with two research institutions from Switzerland and Italy, was launched in December 2015, with a mission to collect data related to the high-energy particles, electrons, gamma rays and high-energy cosmic rays in the cosmos, which could serve as circumstantial evidence for the existence of dark matter.

Since its launch, the DAMPE satellite has collected 1.5 million high-energy cosmic ray electrons and positrons, based on which researchers have already drawn the world's highest-precision survey sheet for cosmic rays.

The DAMPE satellite outperforms the America-built Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration installed on the International Space Station in 2011 to collect and analyze cosmic ray events in the universe.

The DAMPE satellite's cosmic ray detection range is 10 times larger than that of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and three times as accurate, according to Chang.

"The existing physical models cannot explain the new findings by 'Wukong'," said a well-known theoretical physicist who doubles as reviewer of the journal Nature, according to a report published on jiemian.com.

With the rapid development of science and technology, China has shown its growing ambition in the cosmos, which is written into last year's white paper charting the blueprint for its space strategy for the next five years and promising the peaceful use of outer space.

In 2016, China's Shenzhou-11 spacecraft successfully docked with the Tiangong-2 space lab, where two astronauts tested out the rendezvous and docking technologies that China needs to build a real space station by 2020.

In the same year, China started the operation of the world's biggest radio telescope in southwestern China's Guizhou province, which is designed to search for gravitational waves and detect radio emissions from stars, galaxies and even extra-terrestrial bodies.


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