For best experience please turn on javascript and use a modern browser!

Researchers from the University of Amsterdam GRAPPA Centre of Excellence just published the most precise analysis so far of the fluctuations in the gamma-ray background. They used more than six years of data gathered by the Fermi Large Area Telescope and found two different source classes contributing to the gamma-ray background. No traces of a contribution of dark matter particles were found in the analysis. The study was performed with an international collaboration of researchers and is published in the journal Physical Review D.

Lead author Mattia Fornasa (GRAPPA/UvA)

Gamma rays are particles of light, or photons, with the highest energy in the universe, invisible to the human eye. The most common emitters of gamma rays are blazars: supermassive black holes at the centres of galaxies. In smaller numbers, gammy rays are also produced by a certain kind of stars called pulsars and in huge stellar explosions such as supernovae.

In 2008 NASA launched the Fermi satellite to map the gamma-ray universe with extreme accuracy. The Large Area Telescope, mounted on the Fermi satellite, has been taking data ever since. It continuously scans the whole sky every three hours. The majority of the detected gamma rays is produced in our own Galaxy (the Milky Way), but the Fermi telescope also managed to detect more than 3000 extragalactic sources (according to the latest count performed in January 2016). However, these individual sources are not enough to explain the total amount of gamma-ray photons coming from outside our Galaxy. In fact, about 75% of them are unaccounted for. 

This view shows the entire sky at energies greater than 1 GeV based on five years of data from the LAT instrument on NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Brighter colors indicate brighter gamma-ray emission. The large bright band in the middle is the emission from our own Galaxy. Image Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

Isotropic gamma-ray background

As far back as the late 1960’s, orbiting observatories have found a diffuse background of gamma rays streaming from all directions in the universe. If you had gamma-ray vision, and looked at the sky, there would be no place that would be dark.

The source of this so-called isotropic gamma-ray background is hitherto unknown.  This radiation could be produced by unresolved blazars, or other sources too faint to be detected with the Fermi telescope. Parts of the gamma-ray background might also hold the fingerprint of the illustrious dark matter particle, a so-far undetected particle held responsible for the missing 80% of the matter in our universe. If two dark matter particles collide, they can annihilate and produce a signature of gamma-ray photons. 


Mattia Fornasa and his colleagues performed an extensive analysis of the gamma-ray background by using 81 months of data gathered by the Fermi Large Area Telescope – much more data and with a larger energy range than in previous studies. By studying the fluctuations in the intensity of the gamma-ray background, the researchers were able to distinguish two different contributions to the gamma-ray background. One class of gamma-ray sources is needed to explain the fluctuations at low energies (below 1 GeV), and another type of sources is needed to generate the fluctuations at higher energy – the signatures of these two contributions is markedly different.

Fluctuations in the isotropic gamma-ray background, based on 81 months of data. Emission from our own Galaxy, the Milky Way, is masked in grey. Image Credit: Mattia Fornasa, UvA/Grappa

In their paper the researchers suggest that the gamma rays in the high-energy ranges – from a few GeV up – are likely originating from unresolved blazars. Further investigation of these potential sources is currently carried out by Mattia Fornasa, Shin’ichiro Ando (both University of Amsterdam) and colleagues from the University of Torino, Italy.

However, it seems much harder to pinpoint a source for the fluctuations with energies below 1 GeV. None of the known gamma-ray emitters have a behaviour that is consistent with the new data. 

Constraints on dark matter

So far, the Fermi telescope has not detected any conclusive indication of gamma-ray emission originating from dark-matter particles. Also this latest study showed no indication of a signal associated with dark matter. Using their data, Fornasa and colleagues were even able to rule out some models of dark matter that would have produced a detectable signal.

Lead author Mattia Fornasa (University of Amsterdam): “Our measurement complements other search campaigns that used gamma rays to look for dark matter, and it confirms that there is little room left for dark matter induced gamma-ray emission in the isotropic gamma-ray background.”


GRAPPA (GRavitation and AstroParticle Physics in Amsterdam,, is a centre of excellence of the University of Amsterdam. GRAPPA brings together theoretical physicists, astronomers and particle physicists, in order to answer some of the most profound questions in particle astrophysics and cosmology: What is the so-called dark matter? How was the universe created? Where do cosmic rays originate? What bounds the smallest particles? GRAPPA members contributing to this research paper are Mattia Fornasa (lead author), Jennifer M. Gaskins and Fabio Zandanel.

Article reference

Mattia Fornasa, Alessandro Cuoco, Jesús Zavala, Jennifer M. Gaskins, Miguel A. Sánchez-Conde, German Gomez-Vargas, Eiichiro Komatsu, Tim Linden, Francisco Prada, Fabio Zandanel and Aldo Morselli - The angular power spectrum of the diffuse gamma-ray emission as measured by the Fermi Large Area Telescope and constraints on its Dark Matter interpretation, in Phys. Rev. D 94, 123005, 9 December 2016

Contact information - not for publication

Lead author: Mattia Fornasa

PIO University of Amsterdam: Jacqueline de Vree