There have been plenty of ‘false dawns’ when it comes to dark matter, with a ‘discovery’ seemingly announced every few months.
But this latest announcement has understandably gripped scientists with excitement – because it might just be our first ever direct detection of the elusive particles.
Researchers have spotted a type of particle believed to make up dark matter coming from the sun towards Earth – and it may indicate that dark matter is produced in the cores of stars like our own.
The discovery was made by scientists at the University of Leicester using the XMM-Newton telescope in space.
What they spotted was a signature of ‘axions’ coming from the sun towards Earth.
The researchers observed a strange signal in the solar system – and the only explanation at the moment is that it is due to these dark matter particles.
What they spotted was a strange source of X-rays in Earth’s magnetic field.
Once they had ruled out other sources including other stars and galaxies, only one remained.
That was that the signal was the result of axions being converted into photons as they hit the magnetic field.
Axions are hypothetical elementary particles that are thought to at least partially make up dark matter.
The existence of dark matter has been theorised owing to its observed gravitational effect on stars and galaxies.
It is believed to make up about 85 per cent of all matter in the universe and gives the cosmos its structure.
But if this result is confirmed, it would be the first ever direct detection of dark matter.
The core of the sun is extremely hot and dense, and it is continually going through the nuclear fusion process.
Because of the high temperatures and densities, it has a potential to create exotic particles such as axions.
However, while theorised, their existence had been hard to prove.
The paper announcing the discovery was led by Professor George Fraser, who died in March this year.
In the paper he explains: ‘It appears plausible that axions – dark matter particle candidates – are indeed produced in the core of the sun and do indeed convert to X-rays in the magnetic field of the Earth.’
President of the Royal Astronomical Society Professor Martin Barstow, also Professor of Astrophysics and Space Science at the University, said the discovery could have ‘a fundamental impact on our theories of the universe.’
He adds that it is only a preliminary result for now, and follow-up observations by telescopes will be needed to confirm it.
Speaking to MailOnline, he says: ‘It is actually a really exciting result, potentially the first direct observational signature of dark matter.
‘We do know it exists as we see it through its influence through gravity on things that surround it.
‘There’s been a long search for what dark matter really is in terms of particles, and this would tell you that axions are at least one kind of dark matter particle.’
‘We have been looking for evidence of these particles in their effect on stars cooling or through radiation in various parts of the universe.
‘So seeing something that looks like it might be a signal is an important result. Axions have never been spotted before.’
Exactly what axions might be is a bit more of a mystery, though.
It is thought they have mass, as we know dark matter has a gravitational effect on objects.
But they are likely ‘some other aspect of subatomic physics’ that is not yet understood, explains Professor Barstow.
He also adds that it’s unclear if all dark matter comes from stars.
Instead, it is more likely that dark matter has a number of sources – including our sun.
Dr Read, a co-author on the paper, added: ‘These exciting discoveries, in George’s final paper, could be truly ground-breaking, potentially opening a window to new physics, and could have huge implications, not only for our understanding of the true X-ray sky, but also for identifying the dark matter that dominates the mass content of the cosmos.’
The team notes they will be performing repeat observations soon in the hope of confirming the groundbreaking finding.