Josh Simon uses observations of nearby galaxies to study problems related to dark matter, chemical evolution, star formation, and the process of galaxy evolution.
In one area he looks at peculiarly dark galaxies. Interestingly, some galaxies are so dark they glow with the light of just a few hundred Suns. Simon and colleagues have determined that a tiny, very dim galaxy orbiting the Milky Way, called Segue 1, is the darkest galaxy ever found and has the highest dark matter density ever found. His team has also laid to rest a debate about whether Segue 1 really is a galaxy or a globular cluster—a smaller group of stars that lacks dark matter. Their findings make Segue 1 a promising laboratory to study dark matter, particularly the possibility that dark matter could be seen for the first time via a detection of gamma rays emanating from colliding dark matter particles.
Dark matter is the mysterious nonluminous material that makes up about most of the universe. Dark energy is a mysterious repulsive force. Together they make up about 95% of the universe. The rest--all observable matter--adds up to less than 5% of the universe. Nearby dwarf galaxies have the highest measured densities of dark matter, making them ideal for dark matter studies, but that proximity also has a downside. Star systems so close to the massive Milky Way are subject to the acceleration of their stars by our galaxy’s tidal forces, an effect that can mimic the presence of dark matter. The lack of bright stars in dim dwarfs also makes it difficult to measure the velocities of enough stars for sufficient certainty. Simon and company overcame these hurdles with a comprehensive program that measured and analyzed the speed and chemistry of 397 stars in the vicinity of Segue 1.
A major difference between galaxies and globular clusters--spherical collections of stars that are gravitationally bound--is that the stars in galaxies contain widely varying amounts of iron and other heavy elements, while stars in clusters do not. The new observations revealed that some Segue 1 stars have 50 times less iron than others in the galaxy, demonstrating conclusively that Segue 1 cannot be a globular cluster.
In collaboration with astronomers, Simon also showed that the high speeds of the Segue 1 stars are not caused by invisible binary companion stars, firming up the estimates of the amount of dark matter in the galaxy. Ongoing observations with NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope are searching for signals from Segue 1 and other dwarfs, which would provide astronomers with concrete proof that their dark matter theories are on the right track\
Simon received his B.S. in physics from Stanford University and his M.A. and Ph. D. in astrophysics from UC-Berkeley. He was a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech from 2005-2008 and the Vera Rubin Fellow at Carnegie from 2008 to 2010. For more information see http://obs.carnegiescience.edu/users/jsimon