An International team of scientists in the XENON
collaboration, including several from the Weizmann Institute, announced on Thursday the results of their search for the elusive component of our universe known as dark matter. This search was conducted with greater sensitivity than ever before. After one hundred days of data collection in the XENON100 experiment, carried out deep underground at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory of the INFN, in Italy, they found no evidence for the existence of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles – or WIMPs – the leading candidates for the mysterious dark matter. The three candidate events they observed were consistent with two they expected to see from background radiation. These new results reveal the highest sensitivity reported as yet by any dark matter experiment, while placing the strongest constraints on new physics models for particles of dark matter. Weizmann Institute professors Eilam Gross
, Ehud Duchovni
and Amos Breskin,
and research student Ofer Vitells, made significant contributions to the findings by introducing a new statistical method that both increases the search sensitivity and enables new discovery.
Any direct observation of WIMP activity would link the largest observed structures in the Universe with the world of subatomic particle physics. While such detection cannot be claimed as yet, the level of sensitivity achieved by the XENON100 experiment could be high enough to allow an actual detection in the near future. What sets XENON100 apart from competing experiments is its significantly lower background radiation, which is 100 times lower, greatly reducing the potential obscuring of any dark matter signal. The XENON100 detector, which uses 62 kg of liquid xenon as its WIMP target, and which measures tiny charges and light signals produced by predicted rare collisions between WIMPs and xenon atoms, continues its search for WIMPs. New data from the 2011 run, as well as the plan to build a much larger experiment in the coming years, promise an exciting decade in the search for the solution to one of nature's most fundamental mysteries.
Cosmological observations consistently point to a picture of our universe in which the ordinary matter we know makes up only 17% of all matter; the rest – 83% – is in an as yet unobserved form – so-called dark matter. This complies with predictions of the smallest scales; necessary extensions of the Standard Model of particle physics suggest that exotic new particles exist, and these are perfect dark matter candidates. Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) are thus implied in both cosmology and particle physics. An additional hint for their existence lies in the fact that the calculated abundance of such particles arising from the Big Bang matches the required amount of dark matter. The search for WIMPs is thus well-founded; a direct detection of such particles would provide the central missing piece needed to confirm this new picture of our Universe.
The properties of dark matter have been addressed through a variety of approaches and methods; these have provided the scientists with indirect hints of what to search for. WIMPs are expected to have a mass comparable to that of atomic nuclei, with a very low probability that they will interact with normal matter. Such particles are thought be distributed in an enormous cloud surrounding the visible disk of the Milky Way. Earth is moving through this cloud, along with the Sun, on its journey around the Galaxy center. This movement results in a 'WIMP wind,' which may occasionally scatter off atomic nuclei in an Earth-bound detector, releasing a tiny amount of energy which can then be detected with ultra-sensitive devices.
In the XENON100 experiment, 62 kg of liquid xenon acts as a WIMP target. The liquid, at a temperature of about -90° C, is contained in a stainless steel cryostat equipped with a cryo-cooler to maintain highly stable operating conditions. The experiment is located in the Gran Sasso Underground Laboratory (LNGS) in Italy where it is shielded from cosmic radiation by 1400 meters of rock. Further shielding from radioactivity in the detector itself and its surroundings is provided by layers of active and passive absorbers surrounding the target. These include 100 kg of active liquid xenon scintillator, 2 tons of ultra-pure copper, 1.6 tons of polyethylene and 34 tons of lead and water. The radio-pure materials used to produce the detector components assure an ultra-low background radiation environment.
Particles interacting within the active liquid xenon space excite and ionize atoms. This results in light emission in the deep ultraviolet. As electrons drift across the liquid xenon, they create a delayed, luminescent signal on the top of the detector, due to the experiment’s strong electric field. Both primary and secondary scintillation light signals are detected via two arrays of photosensors – one located in the liquid xenon at the bottom, and one in the gas above the liquid. The simultaneous measurement of these two light signals enables the researchers to infer both the energy and the spatial coordinates of the particles’ interaction, while providing information on their nature. This analysis of ratio of the two light signals and their precise localization in space is an extremely accurate method of distinguishing WIMP signals from background events.
Many of technologies and methods used in the XENON100 experiment have been built on the research and development efforts of the XENON Dark Matter Search program, which produced, in 2006, the XENON10 prototype. For XENON100, a ten-fold increase in fiducial target mass, combined with 100-fold reduction in background, translates into a substantial improvement in sensitivity to WIMP-nucleon elastic scattering. An extensive calibration using various sources of gammas and neutrons was performed to demonstrate that XENON100 reached its goals for sensitivity and for low background radiation.
Results from a preliminary analysis from 11.2 days worth of data, taken during the experiment’s commissioning phase in October and November 2009, have already set new upper limits on the interaction rate of WIMPs – the world's best for WIMP masses below about 80 times the mass of a proton (Physical Review Letters 105 (2010) 131302
A new dark matter search was performed between January and June, 2010, and 100 days worth of data from this run have been analyzed. Three candidate events were found within the pre-defined parameters in which the WIMP signal is expected to appear. However, these events, while coming from true particle interactions in the detector, are consistent with predictions of two such events resulting from radioactive backgrounds. Thus evidence for dark matter cannot be claimed, but a new upper limit for the strength of its interaction with normal matter could be calculated. These results represent the best limits to date. They narrow the possibilities open to supersymmetric particle physics theories that predict the nature of dark matter.
XENON100 has achieved the lowest background among all dark matter experiments worldwide (Physical Review D (2011)
). Since the data presented here were collected, the intrinsic background from radioactive krypton in the xenon filling XENON100 has been reduced to an unprecedented low level and the detectors’ performance has been improved as well. Even as new data are being collected in these improved conditions, the scientific team is preparing a next-generation dark-matter search experiment featuring a detector that will contain more than 1000 kg of liquid xenon as a fiducial WIMP target. With further reduction in overall background radiation, XENON1T promises to be a hundred times more sensitive than XENON100.
The XENON collaboration consists of 60 scientists from 14 institutions in the USA (Columbia University New York, University of California Los Angeles, Rice University Houston), China (Shanghai Jiao Tong University), France (Subatech Nantes), Germany (Max-Planck-Institut Heidelberg, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Willhelms Universität Münster), Israel (Weizmann Institute of Science), Italy (Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso, INFN e Università di Bologna), Netherlands (Nikhef Amsterdam), Portugal (Universidade de Coimbra) and Switzerland (Universität Zürich).
XENON100 is supported by the collaborating institutions and by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy in the USA, by the Swiss National Foundation in Switzerland, by l'Institut national de physique des particules et de physique nucléaire and La Région des Pays de la Loire in France, by the Max-Planck-Society and by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft in Germany, by the Weizmann Institute of Science, by FOM in the Netherlands, by the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia in Portugal, by the Instituto Nazionale di FIsica Nucleare in Italy and by STCSM in China.
Professor Elena Aprile (Spokesperson)
Columbia University, Physics Department
+1 212-854-3258 ; +1 914-591-2878
Prof. Amos Breskin’s research is supported by the Nella and Leon Benoziyo Center for High Energy Physics; and the estate of Richard Kronstein. Prof. Breskin is the incumbent of the Walter P. Reuther Chair of Research in Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy.
Prof. Ehud Duchovni’s research is supported by the Nella and Leon Benoziyo Center for High Energy Physics; and the Yeda-Sela Center for Basic Research. Prof. Duchovni is the incumbent of the Professor Wolfgang Gentner Chair of Nuclear Physics.
Prof. Eilam Gross’ research is supported by the estate of Richard Kronstein.