Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Physical Science: Session 8

A Closer Look: Dark Matter

How can we determine the mass of far-away galaxies?

In this session’s video, we mentioned that a new kind of matter has been proposed to explain the motions of galaxies. In 1933, astronomer Fritz Zwicky made careful observations of a gravitationally bound cluster of galaxies called the Coma cluster, which is estimated at over 1000 galaxies, located 350 million light years away in the northern constellation Coma Berenices.

Zwicky determined how fast the galaxies are moving relative to each other and, using Newton's theory of gravity, calculated their mass: the faster they are moving, the greater the mass of the cluster. Zwicky found the mass of the cluster to be 400 times what one would expect by inferring the mass from the brightness of the cluster. He termed this missing matter "dark matter."

Even though dark matter can be indirectly observed in many places in the universe including our own galaxy (by measuring the speed of rotation of stars around the galactic center), no one has yet detected it directly using any kind of telescope. Current estimates are that dark matter comprises 90% or more of all the mass in the universe.

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