Research | Queen’s University Canada

Exploring the darkness

Exploring the darkness

Almost everyone can appreciate the beauty of the night sky. It was once wisely stated, “When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” For some, however, the beauty comes with what we can’t see – the dark matter – that comprises most of the mass out in space.

The unique focus on dark matter investigations at Queen’s University was one of many attractive features that lured astrophysicist Stéphane Courteau to Kingston in 2004. Already in the 1990s, Queen’s had initiated an intensive campaign at the deep-underground Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) to track some of the dark matter produced by the Sun – the elusive, nearly massless, and invisible neutrino particles. (In 1999, SNO scientists solved the three-decade old “solar neutrino problem,” to significant international acclaim.) Courteau’s own search for dark matter is of a different yet complementary nature. Rather than conduct his investigations underground, he and his team look up into space with large ground-based telescopes, and use images and spectra of galaxies taken at different wavelengths to map out the distribution of visible and invisible light in, and around, galaxies.

[Courteau at Canada-France-Hawaii telescope]
Courteau contemplating an uncertain and unwanted cloudy sky at the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope.(Credit: ©

Every known galaxy, like two of his favorites (the Andromeda and Sombrero galaxies), is surrounded by a halo of dark matter that accounts for more than 90% of its total mass. Because the dark matter is invisible, its presence is inferred through the activity and behaviour of surrounding visible objects. For example, by measuring the movement of stars, which are being accelerated by dark matter, we can infer the amount of dark matter. It can also be measured by looking at visible distortions caused by gravitational lensing (a light-bending process first proposed by Einstein and Zwicky in 1936). Understanding where the dark matter is located and how much there is allows Courteau, his team, and collaborators (including Larry Widrow and Kristine Spekkens of Queen’s) to create models for the typical mass distribution in galaxies and clusters of galaxies. These can, in turn, be compared to theories of galaxy formation and evolution to understand how galaxies like our own have emerged, and also test models for predicting the nature of the invisible mass which SNOLAB* scientists are also actively chasing.

Courteau collects data on some of the largest telescopes in the world, located in remote, dry, mountaintop locations away from light pollution, such as those in the Chilean Atacama desert or atop the Mauna Kea extinct volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. His observational campaigns always involve students. For instance, two of his current PhD students, Jonathan Sick and Nathalie Ouellette, have pursued some of the most extensive studies of the nearby Andromeda galaxy and the Virgo cluster of galaxies (see slideshow photos) to date. Besides mapping the dark matter, they can identify the different stellar populations (that is, for example, the age and/or chemical composition of each stellar group) within galaxies that ultimately constrain how they evolve. Together with the SNOLAB group, Queen’s astrophysicists like Courteau, and their students, form one of the most active centres for research on dark matter in the world.

*With the solar neutrino problem essentially solved, dark matter detections in the revamped SNOLAB observatory now focus on measuring other properties of neutrinos, as well as the detection of the so-called “cold dark matter” particles that are more massive than the neutrino but far harder to detect. SNOLAB is the premier laboratory of its kind in the world.

Learn more about Dr. Courteau's research

[COurteau and students at the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope]

Access and exposure to world-class research facilities is central to Courteau’s research program for all of his students. Pictured at the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope are Jonathan Sick, Joel Roediger and Melanie Hall. Like most of his students, all three secured competitive career opportunities in astrophysics upon graduation.

[Virgo Cluster]

The Virgo cluster comprises a fairly heterogeneous mixture of ~2,000 spiral, elliptical, and dwarf galaxies. Although its angular extent in the sky is ~15 times larger than that of the Moon, the relatively low brightness of most of its members makes their observation challenging even with the largest telescopes. Central to Courteau’s research program for the last decade, the Virgo cluster is an ideal laboratory for the study of galaxy evolution and dark matter mapping given its broad mixture of galaxy types and relative proximity. Credit: Rogelio Bernal Andreo,

[the Sombrero galaxy]

The Sombrero galaxy is a bright spiral galaxy in the Virgo cluster. The dark dust lane and the large bulge give this galaxy the appearance of a sombrero. One of the most super massive black holes in any of the nearby galaxies lives in its core. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

[Courteau overlooking the Gemini-North telescope]

Courteau on site in Hawaii overlooking the Gemini-North telescope at an altitude of 4,200 m. Hawaii is an important hub of activity for astronomers, where some of the biggest telescopes in the world are located.

[the Andromeda galaxy by Jonathan Sick]

This picture of the Andromeda galaxy by Jonathan Sick was “stitched” together from images collected for his PhD thesis at the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope over a four-year span. This is the most complete picture of Andromeda, one of our closest neighbours, ever assembled.

Gemini Mirror Reflections

Stéphane Courteau
The Gemini telescope and dome are ablaze in the setting sun's golden light. The reflections on the 8-m monolithic primary mirror are especially intricate and distorted. The shadow of the extinct 4200m Mauna Kea volcano can also be seen in the background upon a sea of clouds over the city of Hilo. The vertical shutters around the dome are usually opened at sunset to ensure that the inside and outside temperatures are the same throughout the night for greater image stability. Dr. Courteau has made extensive use of this telescope, and its twin in Chile, since his arrival at Queen's in 2004.
Location of photograph:
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Faculty, Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy
Year of entry:
Centres and Institutes

Arthur B. McDonald Canadian Astroparticle Physics Institute

Core research: 

The Arthur B. McDonald Canadian Astroparticle Physics Research Institute is a national hub for astroparticle physics research, uniting researchers, theorists, and technical experts within one organization.

Queen’s University led 13 Canadian institutions in creating the centre’s predecessor organization in 2015. The McDonald Institute, officially launched in 2018, works to enhance Canada’s global leadership in the field, which includes dark matter and neutrino research.