for National Geographic News
Dark matter may have fueled the formation of the universe's first stars—vast, invisible giants totally unlike the blazing suns of today—scientists say.
According to a new theory, disintegrating fragments of the mysterious substance could have created "dark stars" hundreds of thousands of times wider than the sun around 13 billion years ago, just after the big bang.
Because these stars weren't fueled by fusing hydrogen and helium like known present-day stars, they would have been completely invisible—but scorching hot.
The findings "drastically alter the current theoretical framework for the formation of the first stars," said study co-author Paolo Gondolo, an astrophysicist at the University of Utah.
Scientists still don't know what dark matter is exactly, so the research could shed light on it and other astronomical mysteries, he added.
"We are always searching for ways to determine the nature of dark matter," Gondolo said.
The paper will appear in next month's issue of the journal Physical Review Letters.
According to some theories of the universe, dark matter likely consists of hypothetical particles called neutralinos. (Related: "Dark Matter Mapped in 3-D, Scientists Report" [January 8, 2007].)
The new paper suggests that neutralinos annihilated each other in the early universe, producing subatomic particles called quarks and their antimatter counterparts, antiquarks.
The heat from this process was enough to prevent embryonic hydrogen and helium from cooling and shrinking. Such contraction ignites the self-sustaining fusion process that powers conventional stars.
"The heating can counteract the cooling, and so the star stops contracting for a while, forming a dark star" some 80 million to 100 million years after the big bang, Gondolo said.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES