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Uncovering galaxy evolution and the nature of dark matter

Dark matter represents around eighty per cent of the total mass in the Universe. Yet, we still don't really know what it's made of. Astronomer Pavel Mancera Piña is looking for answers. With a Veni grant from NWO and the most advanced telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, he will investigate the properties of dark matter. ‘I want to understand how dark matter has regulated the formation and evolution of galaxies.’

‘Because dark matter makes up such a big portion of our universe, understanding its nature is crucial to understanding that very universe,’ explains Mancera Piña. ‘In theory, dark matter (see box) must be crucial for the history of the universe and the formation and evolution of galaxies. However, the details are yet not well understood. Moreover, the precise nature of dark matter has remained a mystery for the last 100 years.’ Therefore, learning more about the nature of dark matter and understanding the physics of galaxy evolution are two of the most urgent tasks of astrophysics.

What is dark matter? 

Mancera Piña: ‘Galaxies, like our own Milky Way, are the building blocks of the Universe. Most of the mass in galaxies is not like the usual matter we interact with every day but instead is a mysterious "dark matter". Dark matter is invisible to our eyes, but we can infer its presence due to its gravitational effects, for instance, galaxies rotate much faster than expected given their visible mass.’ 

Looking at old galaxies with state-of-the-art telescopes

In his quest for the nature of dark matter, Mancera Piña will use the most advanced telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, the ALMA telescope in Chile and the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa. He'll use them to measure the motions of the stars and gas in galaxies. ‘Both in the present day and back when the universe was much younger. From this, I will infer the total amount and local distribution of dark matter in galaxies throughout the history of the universe.’ This way, Mancera Piña hopes to learn more about what dark matter is made of and how it regulates the properties of galaxies during their formation and evolution.

Linking dark and normal matter

Mancera Piña hopes the novel observations will also help understand the link between dark and normal matter in galaxies and how the interplay between them further regulates galaxy evolution. ‘Learning about the signatures of dark matter particles would also have a great impact on other related fields,’ he says. ‘Think of physics, cosmology, and particle physics, including the potential development of new technologies.

Independent but supported by a great community

Mancera Piña is extremely happy and excited about his fellowship. ‘I feel honoured to be selected by NWO. This is a chance to independently develop my research and benefit from the great scientific community at Leiden Observatory. I am very much looking forward to what is to come!’ 

Header photo: Infrared image from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. It shows a portion of an area of the sky known as GOODS-South, which has been well studied by the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories. More than 45,000 galaxies are visible here. Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, Brant Robertson (UC Santa Cruz), Ben Johnson (CfA), Sandro Tacchella (Cambridge), Marcia Rieke (University of Arizona), Daniel Eisenstein (CfA) 

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