Physicists are taking the temperature of dark matter, the mysterious substance that makes up about a quarter of our universe.

We have very little idea of what dark matter is, and physicists have yet to detect a dark matter particle. But we do know that the gravity of clumps of dark matter can distort light from distant objects.

Chris Fassnacht, a physics professor at the University of California, Davis, and colleagues are using this distortion, called gravitational lensing, to learn more about the properties of dark matter.

The standard model for dark matter is that it is “cold,” meaning that the particles move slowly compared to the speed of light, Fassnacht says. This is also tied to the mass of dark matter particles. The lower the mass of the particle, the “warmer” it is and the faster it will move.

The model of cold (more massive) dark matter holds at very large scales, Fassnacht says, but doesn’t work so well on the scale of individual galaxies. That’s led to other models including “warm” dark matter with lighter, faster-moving particles. Observations have ruled out “hot” dark matter with particles moving close to the speed of light.

The researchers used gravitational lensing to put a limit on the warmth and therefore the mass of dark matter. They measured the brightness of seven distant gravitationally lensed quasars to look for changes caused by additional intervening blobs of dark matter. Then the team used these results to measure the size of these dark matter lenses.

If dark matter particles are lighter, warmer, and more rapidly moving, then they will not form structures below a certain size, Fassnacht says.

“Below a certain size, they would just get smeared out,” he says.

The results put a lower limit on the mass of a potential dark matter particle while not ruling out cold dark matter, he says. The team’s results represent a major improvement over a previous analysis from 2002 and are comparable to recent results from a team at UCLA.

Fassnacht hopes to continue adding lensed objects to the survey to improve the statistical accuracy.

“We need to look at about 50 objects to get a good constraint on how warm dark matter can be,” he says.

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