China’s hunt for the elusive dark matter is now officially underway. On Monday, the Chinese Academy of Sciences confirmed that the Dark Matter Particle Explorer (Dampe) satellite, launched by China on Dec. 17, returned its first batch of data to ground stations indicating that all systems on board were working properly.
Despite accounting for nearly 85 percent of all matter in the universe we live in, dark matter — so named because it does not emit or absorb any radiation except during collisions with other dark matter particles — has long remained elusive.
Currently, the hypothetical Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs), which are believed to interact with normal matter through gravity and the weak nuclear force, are the leading candidates to explain the composition of dark matter. However, so far, even the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN has failed to detect them.
In their search for dark matter, scientists are currently employing three different techniques — colliding high-energy beams of protons in particle accelerators such as the LHC and sifting through the debris to look for WIMPs; building extremely sensitive dark matter detectors deep underground to shield them from radioactive background radiation; and placing detectors in space to look for high-energy particles and gamma rays — radiation that scientist believe are produced when dark matter particles collide and annihilate each other.
The Dampe satellite, nicknamed Wukong, or Monkey King, after a warrior in a sixteenth-century Chinese novel, marks one of China’s few investments in space science and is similar in design to the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer currently attached to the International Space Station. However, the satellite has a relatively large detection area and would survey the sky at energies much higher than the AMS, which, in 2013, detected what might have been the first hints of the exotic mater.