Scientists Suggest to Send Atomic Clocks Into Space To Search For Dark Matter

Dark matter makes up 85% of our Universe. Now there is a new way for us to detect it.

By: Tiger Deng, Journalist

For the past few decades, scientists have been trying to figure out dark matter, which makes up an estimated 85% of the mass in the universe. So far, despite efforts tried for decades, researchers have only been able to observe dark matter, but not detect it.

A new study published by Nature Astronomy on December 5 showed that an atomic clock onboard a spacecraft inside the core areas of the solar system could look for ultralight dark matter. It has wavelike properties that can change the operation of the clocks, explained in the above linked article.

Atomic clocks are already in space, helping us by enabling Global Positioning System (GPS). They can tell time by measuring the oscillations of atoms.

University of Delaware physicist Marianna Safronova and collaborators Yu-Dai Tsai of the University of California, Irvine, and Joshua Eby of the University of Tokyo and the Kavli Institute for the Physics and the Mathematics of the Universe want to put these “precision timepieces to work in the quest to find dark matter,” as per a release.

The Clocks Can Pick Up On Oscillating Signals

The researchers claim that the region of the solar system between the Sun and the orbit of Mercury has a large density of large matter. This could become high sensitivity for the oscillating signals.

Atomic clocks function by measuring the frequency of photons that are emitted when atoms transition between different states. The clocks could pick up the signals. And if there is ultralight dark matter nearby, the frequencies will be changed, decreasing the photon energy and increasing the oscillations of the dark matter, which the clocks can pick up on. “The more dark matter there is around the experiment, the larger these oscillations are, so the local density of dark matter matters a lot when analyzing the signal,” Eby said in a statement.

Other Types Of Atomic Clocks Are Already Working In Space

According to the paper, the clocks would be atomic, nuclear, and molecular clocks that are known as “quantum sensors” and are still under development.

This project was inspired by the Parker Solar Probe, according to Safronova. The Parker Solar Probe is a spacecraft that was sent closer to the Sun than any spacecraft ever before, and is still in operation. “It showed that you could send a satellite very close to the Sun, sensing new conditions and making discoveries. That is much closer to the Sun than what we are proposing here,” she said.

NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock mission, in 2019,  built the best atomic clock in space until now. However, Safronova believes that different types of clocks based on higher frequencies have been developed over the last 2 decades. These clocks will have extremely high orders of magnitude, and will not lose a second of time in millions or even billions of years.

“There is a whole range of great things we can do in space,” Safronova said. “We are at the very, very beginning of that.”



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