NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has found the largest known group of spherical star clusters, a discovery that may provide clues in the effort to solve the mystery of dark matter.
Scientists estimate there are about 160,000 star clusters "swarming like bees" in the center of a giant grouping of galaxies called Abell 1689, NASA said.
Globular star clusters are dense bunches of hundreds of thousands of stars and are the earliest galaxy residents. Since nearly 95% of globular clusters formed within the first 2 billion years after the birth of the universe, they are believed to contain some of the oldest surviving stars.
Scientists know that dark matter -- a mysterious and so-far elusive substance that is thought to make up a quarter of the universe -- neither emits nor absorbs light. But scientists know it exists because of its gravitational influence on the rest of the universe.
Beyond that, they know little about it.
An understanding of dark matter could offer valuable clues to how the Milky Way will evolve and whether the universe will stop expanding at some point.
"We show how the relationship between globular clusters and dark matter depends on the distance from the center of the galaxy grouping," said Karla Alamo-Martinez of the Center for Radio Astronomy and Astrophysics, in a statement. "In other words, if you know how many globular clusters are within a certain distance, we can give you an estimate of the amount of dark matter."
Studying the ancient star clusters could also provide data on the early days of the universe, and help in understanding how galaxies were formed.
"The globular clusters are fossils of the earliest star formation in Abell 1689, and our work shows they were very efficient in forming in the denser regions of dark matter near the center of the galaxy cluster," said John Blakeslee of the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, in a statement. "Our findings are consistent with studies of globular clusters in other galaxy clusters, but extend our knowledge to regions of higher dark matter density."
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