A team of international scientists is proposing to send atomic clocks into space to detect and understand enigmatic dark matter.
Dark matter is a mystery that has plagued researchers for decades. This unknown essence represents 85% of all matter in the Universe, and although its effects can be observed, it has not been directly detected. Experts from the University of Delaware, the University of California, and the University of Tokyo are collaborating to solve this longstanding mystery by sending atomic clocks into space.
The research, ‘Direct detection of ultralight dark matter bound to the Sun with space quantum sensors,’ which is published in Nature Astronomy, plans to send two atomic clocks into the inner reaches of the solar system to search for ultralight dark matter that has wavelike properties that may affect the operation of the clocks.
What are atomic clocks?
Atomic clocks tell time by measuring the rapid oscillations of atoms and are already utilised in space to enable the Global Positioning System (GPS). In the future, space clocks could help navigate spacecraft and provide links to Earth-based cocks.
All clocks mark time by using some form of a repetitive process, such as a swinging pendulum. However, atomic clocks use laser technology to manipulate and measure the oscillations of atoms which are extremely fast. For example, a clock based on strontium atoms ticks 430 trillion times per second, and atomic clocks are exceedingly more precise than any mechanical devices.
Historically, atomic clocks can cover the size of a couple of tables, but recent advances in precision and portability mean that some atomic clocks can now fit into a van, with NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock being even smaller, at around the size of a toaster.
Nevertheless, different types of clocks, based on much higher frequencies, have been developed over the last 15 years, such as optical clocks that are orders of magnitude more precise and will not lose even a second of time over billions of years.
Marianna Safronova, a physicist at the University of Delaware, said: “We now have portable clocks, and it’s fun to think about how you would go about sending such high-precision clocks to space and establish what great things we can do.
“It is a beautiful synergy between a quantum expert and particle theorists, and we are working on new ideas at the intersection of these two fields.”
Unravelling the mysterious properties of dark matter
The proposed research would send space clocks closer to the Sun than Mercury – an area they believe there is more dark matter to detect. These include atomic, nuclear, and molecular clocks that are currently being developed and are otherwise known as quantum sensors.
Safronova explained: “This was inspired by the Parker Solar Probe, the ongoing NASA mission that sent a spacecraft closer to the Sun than any other spacecraft has gone before. It has nothing to do with quantum sensors or clocks, but 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.”
The aim of the study is to investigate ultralight dark matter, which the researchers believe could make a huge halo-like region that is bound to the Sun. Ultralight dark matter could cause the energies of atoms to oscillate, which will change how the clock ticks, although this effect depends on the atoms the clock uses. The researchers then monitor the differences in the clocks to look for dark matter.
“It has very specific properties and is a very specific dark matter that is detectable by clocks. What is observable is the ratio of those two clock frequencies. That ratio should oscillate if such dark matter exists,” Safronova said.
She explained that nuclear clocks, which are based on nuclear energy levels rather than atomic energy levels, may be the best clock for this research. She is currently involved in a project to build a prototype funded by the European Research Council.