Dark matter is a form of matter thought to account for approximately 85% of the matter in the universe and about 27% of its total mass–energy density or about 2.241×10−27 kg/m3. In the standard Lambda-CDM model of cosmology, the total mass–energy of the universe contains 5% ordinary matter and energy, 27% dark matter and 68% of a form of energy known as dark energy.
Its presence is implied in a variety of astrophysical observations, including gravitational effects that cannot be explained by accepted theories of gravity unless more matter is present than can be seen. For this reason, most experts think that dark matter is abundant in the universe and that it has had a strong influence on its structure and evolution.
Dark matter is called dark because it does not appear to interact with the electromagnetic field, which means it does not absorb, reflect or emit electromagnetic radiation, and is therefore difficult to detect.
Primary evidence for dark matter comes from calculations showing that many galaxies would fly apart, or that they would not have formed or would not move as they do, if they did not contain a large amount of unseen matter.
Other lines of evidence include observations in gravitational lensing and in the cosmic microwave background, along with astronomical observations of the observable universe’s current structure, the formation and evolution of galaxies, mass location during galactic collisions, and the motion of galaxies within galaxy clusters.
Most dark matter is thought to be non-baryonic in nature; it may be composed of some as-yet undiscovered subatomic particles. The primary candidate for dark matter is some new kind of elementary particle that has not yet been discovered, in particular, weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs).
Because dark matter has not yet been observed directly, if it exists, it must barely interact with ordinary baryonic matter and radiation, except through gravity.
Many experiments to directly detect and study dark matter particles are being actively undertaken, but none have yet succeeded. Dark matter is classified as “cold”, “warm”, or “hot” according to its velocity (more precisely, its free streaming length). Current models favor a cold dark matter scenario, in which structures emerge by gradual accumulation of particles.
If dark matter is made up of sub-atomic particles, then millions, possibly billions, of such particles must pass through every square centimeter of the Earth each second. Many experiments aim to test this hypothesis. Although WIMPs are popular search candidates, the Axion Dark Matter Experiment (ADMX) searches for axions. Another candidate is heavy hidden sector particles which only interact with ordinary matter via gravity.
Because dark matter has not yet been conclusively identified, many other hypotheses have emerged aiming to explain the observational phenomena that dark matter was conceived to explain. The most common method is to modify general relativity.
General relativity is well-tested on solar system scales, but its validity on galactic or cosmological scales has not been well proven. A suitable modification to general relativity can conceivably eliminate the need for dark matter. The best-known theories of this class are MOND and its relativistic generalization tensor-vector-scalar gravity (TeVeS), f(R) gravity, negative mass, dark fluid, and entropic gravity. Alternative theories abound.
A problem with alternative hypotheses is observational evidence for dark matter comes from so many independent approaches (see the “observational evidence” section above). Explaining any individual observation is possible but explaining all of them is very difficult.
Nonetheless, there have been some scattered successes for alternative hypotheses, such as a 2016 test of gravitational lensing in entropic gravity and a 2020 measurement of a unique MOND effect.
The prevailing opinion among most astrophysicists is while modifications to general relativity can conceivably explain part of the observational evidence, there is probably enough data to conclude there must be some form of dark matter.