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Dark Matter in Our Solar System

June 25, 2008 on 2:05 am | In Dark Matter, Solar System |

Disclaimer: cutting-edge research ahead.

Sometimes I spend so much time on education and communication that I lose sight of an important fact: I’m a really good astrophysicist! So, for the last six months, I’ve been working on a project with a graduate student (hi, Xiaoying!) that I’ve been mentoring, and our work has finally come to fruition. Today, our paper entitled Dark Matter in the Solar System becomes publicly available. In it, we figure out how much dark matter there is at every place in our Solar System, and it’s pretty awesome!

Let’s give you the understandable version. First, in every big galaxy that we know of, including ours, there’s a big, diffuse halo of dark matter that surrounds and permeates all the stars and gas, looking something like this:

So we can model the halo, and figure out how much dark matter there should be where our Solar System is. And that’s what everyone else has done up until now when they’ve tried to figure out how much dark matter is in the Solar System. But our Sun and planets have been around for 4.5 billion years, moving around the galaxy for a long time:

Well, all this dark matter flies by the Sun, and flies off again. But here’s where our planets are actually important: occasionally, dark matter will fly by a planet, and the planet will steal some energy from the dark matter. We’ve done this for spacecrafts, using planets to both steal energy from them (which is how we get to the inner planets) and to give extra energy to them (which is how we get to the outer planets). The only thing we need to do this is gravity and a good initial aim. Here’s the Galileo spacecraft as an example:

So, how much dark matter experiences this lucky kind of interaction to bind it to the Solar System? Not most of it, that’s for sure. (In fact, we had to simulate over one trillion dark matter particles to find the answer!) But the final answer turns out to be a lot; about 1020 kilograms of dark matter is bound to the Solar System, or about 0.0018% of the mass of the Earth.

Not impressed? How about this little fact: the density of dark matter present at Earth is a factor of 16,000 times larger than the old, naive prediction that doesn’t take this into account! I can even show you, from our paper, where the dark matter is, relative to the old, naive expectation:

You see that first big spike on the left? That’s Mercury. The next two? Venus and Earth. (Mars is too little and too far away to show up.) Then the next big one is Jupiter, and if you look closely, you can see a little bump (that’s Saturn) and then another one (that’s Uranus and Neptune combined). Think people doing experiments looking for dark matter will pay attention to this? I hope so!


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  1. Congrats on publishing your paper! I was starting to wonder how much time you were spending on research seeing how this website must take a good bit of your time, but as always, you are an expert multitasker!

    Comment by Dana — June 25, 2008 #

  2. Thanks, Dana! Despite the website, this is the third paper I’ve finished this year; not bad! I imagine I’ll be slowing down as I’ll no longer be getting paid to be a scientist, but I’m pretty sure that I love this too much to stay away from it for very long.

    Comment by ethan — June 25, 2008 #

  3. That looks like a very interesting and possibly groundbreaking paper. Congrats! How can we detect dark matter, and what difference does having dark matter near the planets make in our lives?

    Comment by brian — June 25, 2008 #

  4. The blips of planets on the graph are real cool. It looks like the DM density is dependent on the function of gravitational attraction. For your 2 x 10^{20}kg AU^-3 I roughly calculate a cgs density of 4.48 x 10^-20 g/cm^3. Since this value actually changes in respect to the terrain of gravity then its going to be hard to gain a handle on just what DM consists of in terms of a particle mass? Neutrinos wouldn’t be subject to a changing numerical distribution would they? Also wouldn’t different solar systems have a unique DM signature according to this. Does this mean that our solar system couples to the galactic halo in some nolinear way? I like the paper although I do not have time and training to understand a lot of it. I hope it gets good attention. Again, the planet blips are fascinating, looks like real Astronomy and Astrophysics at work.

    Comment by mark a. thomas — June 25, 2008 #

  5. Want to know something neat? This means that a new 700 kilograms of dark matter is captured by the Solar System every second, and that has been the case every second for the past 4.5 billion years!

    Comment by ethan — June 25, 2008 #

  6. Very interesting!

    Have you run the numbers for any exoplanets? You have me wondering whether you can get some observable effects on planetary dynamics.

    Comment by Michael Welford — June 26, 2008 #


    Comment by BASHI A HASSAN — September 29, 2008 #

  8. Michael,

    The numbers are too small to affect orbits in any observable fashion.


    The months are holdovers from when we were on a lunar calendar; the extra few days each month are to make it match up to a solar year.

    Comment by ethan — October 1, 2008 #

  9. thank you i have been searching for this answer for so long and i am glad to finally find the truth!

    Comment by tara — November 25, 2008 #

  10. well i just wanted to actually ask you a question rather then leave a comment.i wanted to ask you about the sun really i know that it sometimes throws off flares of heat bubbles that are very small.But what i wanted to know is it may come off as dumb but it makes you wonder.I saw that movie “Knowing” and it scared the hell outta me i was wondering if what happened in that movie can really happen? you know the part about the sun.

    Comment by deborah — July 12, 2009 #


    Comment by KEMRON — August 13, 2009 #

  12. Hi Ethan,

    I am a University of Connecticut (Uconn) graduate student working at Yale university on the direct detection of dark matter. Could you post or e-mail me the reference to your paper? The flux of dark matter near the earth is very relevant to the experiment that I am working on.


    Comment by Nick — October 1, 2009 #

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  18. i think all of you people should stop leaving comments putting down what astrophysicists know and learn, everything they know, and all the information they gather knowing and putting together what they have learned is very helpful, and informational to the salvation and protection of our planet, so if you have something bad to say, keep it to yourself and or put it in one of your blogs, because this is supposed to be a discussion thread, not a chat room.

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  24. The shape of the dark matter halo around the sun and the solar system would be very important to discover. David Law says it is shaped like a squashed beachball around the milky way. in our solar system it is greater, but the sun prevents us from detecting it? Can they sort out the direction of the solar wind and determine if dark matter flows parallel or perpendicular to it?

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