China Detects Weird Space Signals With Its Dark Matter 'Monkey King' Satellite

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Artist impression of China’s dark matter detector satellite. National Space Science Center, Chinese Academy of Sciences

China has detected some weird space signals while hunting for dark matter with its "Monkey King" satellite.

Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have spent the past two years recording cosmic rays with the Dark Matter Particle Explorer (DAMPE) satellite. After measuring over 3.5 billion high-energy particles, the team has now found a blip in the data—a break in the electron and positron spectrum that could point to the annihilation or decay of dark matter.

Normal matter—everything we can see—accounts for up to 5 percent of the universe. Around 68 percent is dark energy, which is the mystery force thought to be driving the universe's expansion. The rest, around 27 percent, is dark matter—the mystery substance that we cannot see, but that we know exists because of the gravitational influence it has over galaxies.

Scientists have been trying to detect dark matter for decades through various methods, all of which have so far proved unsuccessful.

China launched DAMPE—a satellite that sits 310 miles in space and collects data on cosmic rays, which are high-energy radiation particles that mostly come from outside our solar system—in December 2015.

One of the main theories about dark matter is that it may decay into detectable particles, like electrons, positrons and photons, when it is annihilated, something that could potentially be recorded in space with a sensitive detector like DAMPE.

The latest findings, published in Nature, show how there is a spectral break at 0.9 TeV (teraelectron volts) and a potential spike at 1.4 TeV. This discovery narrows down the potential parameters of models relating to events in space like pulsars, supernovas and, as a consequence, the candidates for dark matter.

"Together with data from the cosmic microwave background experiments, high energy gamma-ray measurements, and other astronomical telescopes, the DAMPE data may help to ultimately clarify the connection between the positron anomaly and the annihilation or decay of particle dark matter," Fan Yizhong, deputy chief designer of DAMPE's scientific application system, said in a statement.

"DAMPE has opened a new window for observing the high-energy universe, unveiling new physical phenomena beyond our current understanding," Chang Jin, chief scientist of DAMPE, told Xinhua. "Our data may inspire some new ideas in particle physics and astrophysics. We never expected such signals."

The aftermath of a typical, short-lived supernova as it fades. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/ESA/Hubble/L. Calcada

Fan added that the spike was highly unusual. "The signals might have originated from either dark matter or pulsars," he said.

Chang continued: "The spike might indicate that there exists a kind of unknown particle with a mass of about 1.4 TeV. All the 61 elementary particles predicted by the standard model of particle physics have been found. Dark matter particles are beyond the list. So if we find a new elementary particle, it will be a breakthrough in physics. Even if they were from pulsars, it would be quite a strange astrophysical phenomenon that nobody had known before."

The team will now continue to record cosmic rays to try to confirm their findings. "So far, we are 99.99 percent sure this spike is real, but we need to collect more data. If the statistical probability exceeds 99.99994 percent, it will be a groundbreaking discovery in particle physics and astrophysics," Chang said.