The XENON Detection Principle

The XENON dark matter experiment is installed underground at the Laboratory Nazionali del Gran Sasso of INFN, Italy. A 62 kg liquid xenon target is operated as a dual phase (liquid/gas) time projection chamber to search for interactions of dark matter particles.

Schema of XENON

Schema of the XENON experiment: any particle interaction in the liquid xenon (blue) yields two signals: a prompt flash of light, and a delayed charge signal. Together, these two signals give away the energy and position of the interaction as well as the type of the interacting particle. (Schema: The XENON collaboration/Rafael Lang)

An interaction in the target generates scintillation light which is recorded as a prompt signal (called S1) by two arrays of photomultiplier tubes (PMTs) at the top and bottom of the chamber. In addition, each interaction liberates electrons, which are drifted by an electric field to the liquid-gas interface with a speed of about 2 mm/μs. There, a strong electric field extracts the electrons and generates proportional scintillation which is recorded by the same photomultiplier arrays as a delayed signal (called S2). The time difference between these two signals gives the depth of the interaction in the time-projection chamber with a resolution of a few mm. The hit pattern of the S2 signal on the top array allows to reconstruct the horizontal position of the interaction vertex also with a resolution of a few mm. Taken together, our experiment is able to precisely localize events in all three coordinates. This enables the fiducialization of the target, yielding a dramatic
reduction of external radioactive backgrounds due to the self-shielding capability of liquid xenon.

In addition, the ratio S2/S1 allows to discriminate electronic recoils, which are the dominant
background, from nuclear recoils, which are expected from Dark Matter interactions. And of course, the more energy a particle deposits in the detector, the brighter both S1 and S2 signals are, hence allowing us to reconstruct the particle’s deposited energy as well.

The XENON1T Data Acquisition System

Featuring several kilometers of cables, dozens of analog electronics modules, crates of purpose-built specialty computers, and backed by a small server farm, the XENON1T data acquisition system (DAQ) was designed to put our data onto disks. The XENON Collaboration recently published a technical paper on our DAQ in JINST, of course also available on arXiv.

The XENON1T detector measures light, which creates analog electrical signals in 248 independent photo-sensors. The DAQ is responsible for converting these analog signals to a digital, storage-ready format, deciding what types of aggregate signal indicate the presence of a physical interaction in the detector, and recording all the interesting data onto disk for later storage and analysis.

A photo of the XENON1T DAQ room, deep underground at the Gran Sasso lab. Pictured left to right: the DAQ server rack, (red) digitizers (amplifiers facing backwards), cathode high voltage supply, muon veto DAQ, slow control server rack.

There are a couple novel aspects of this system. The first is that the data is streamed constantly from the readout electronics onto short-term storage, recording all signals above a single photo-electron with high (>93%) efficiency. This is different from a conventional data acquisition system, which usually would require certain hardware conditions to be met to induce acquisition,  also called a trigger. We defer our trigger to the software stage, giving us a very low energy threshold.

The software trigger itself was implemented as a database query, which is another novel aspect of the system. Pre-trigger data was stored in a MongoDB NoSQL database and the trigger logic scanned the database looking for signals consistent with S1’s (light) and S2’s (charge). If the algorithm found a matching signal, it would retrieve all the nearby data from the database and write it to storage. Because of the speed of NoSQL databases, this worked the same in both dark matter search mode, where we record just a few counts per second, and calibration modes, where we could record hundreds of counts per second.

To complete the high-tech upgrade of our system, we also ran the user interface as a web service. This means the system could be controlled from laptops, smartphones, or tablets anywhere with a 4G connection, contributing to the high uptime of the detector.

The DAQ is currently being updated to double its capacity to read out the XENONnT detector, so stay tuned.

The XENONnT dual-phase xenon TPC requires two regions with different electric fields to drift, extract, and accelerate the small number of ionization electrons that are created by a possible dark matter interaction with xenon nuclei. These fields will be created with a total of five electrodes that are biased at constant electric potentials from top to the bottom of the TPC. The challenges to build these large electrodes with almost 1.5 meters in diameter with very thin wires include stringent requirements on their optical transparency, wire sagging, field uniformity and high voltage stability.

Such a challenging project is carried out by a collaborative effort of many expertises within the XENON collaboration. The design and production of the electrodes are led by Dr. Carla Macolino and realized by researchers from the Laboratoire de l’Accélérateur Linéaire, Rice University, University of California San Diego, and University of Coimbra, accompanied by further technical design and electric field simulation support from University of Chicago and Freiburg University. A special instrument was designed and built by the University of Münster to measure the tension of every individual wire. Finally, strict cleaning requirement is satisfied from the expertise at MPI for Nuclear Physics and technical support from Nikhef.

Shown are the actual XENONnT electrodes during construction and quality control in above-ground clean room laboratories.


A Larger Cleanroom for a Larger XENONnT

Assembly of XENONnT Cleanroom at LNGS. Foto: Roberto Corrieri/XENON

The upcoming XENONnT detector, the next phase in our dark matter program, will have a dark matter target about three times larger than that of XENON1T. This means that all dimensions of the instruments are about 50% larger and thus require more space for the cleaning of the detector components and for detector assembly. For this reason, the class ISO-5/6 XENON cleanroom is currently being moved to a new above-ground space at LNGS, where it is re-built with a 50% increased footprint and a partially increased height.

The last action seen by the “old” cleanroom before its decommissioning were very successful tests of the TPC electrodes for XENONnT.

Time stability of signals in XENON1T

One important requirement for every experiment running over long periods of time is the detector’s stability. In the XENON1T experiment we can monitor the time evolution of the response to interactions happening inside the TPC over a wide range of energies and for both gamma and alpha particles of known energies. For this purpose we exploit mono-energetic lines of different nature:

83mKr (9, 32 and 41 keV gamma lines)
The lowest energy calibration lines are from decays of the metastable krypton isotope 83mKr, which is regularly (approximately every 2 weeks) injected in the LXe target to calibrate the spatial dependency of detector’s response. 83mKr decays to stable state by emitting two gammas of 32.2 and 9.4 keV. In some cases the two gammas can be emitted so close in time that cannot be resolved (the half-life of the second transition is 157 ns) resulting thus in a combined gamma line of 41 keV.

131mXe and 129mXe (164 and 236 keV gamma lines)
Metastable isotopes of xenon are activated during calibrations of the detector’s response to low energetic nuclear recoils, which are performed using external neutron sources such as a DD fusion neutron generator or a 241AmBe source. The activated xenon isotopes 131mXe and 129mXe decay to stable state emitting a 164 and 236 keV gamma respectively. Their half-life is in the order of 10 days and such gamma lines are therefore present only for few weeks after any neutron calibration.

High energy gamma lines (1.8, 2.2, 2.6 MeV)
We can also monitor the signals of gamma lines in the MeV energy range which are originated from the (very low) radioactivity of detector’s materials. In particular, we study the gammas from 214Bi (1.8 and 2.2 MeV) and 208Tl (2.6 MeV). Even if the statistics of such energy lines is not very large, they allow a monthly monitoring of signals stability throughout the science run.

222Rn (5.5 MeV alphas)
The radioactive 222Rn is a noble gas that permanently emanates from the detector components into the LXe reservoir. The activity of its alpha decay to 218Po in our detector is of ~13 µBq/kg producing a clear energy line at 5.5 MeV with enough statistics to monitor the detector’s response at this energy on a daily basis.

Time evolution of the light yield for various energy lines over the long science run of XENON1T. Shaded regions highlight calibration runs: Rn220 (for low energy electronic recoils), Kr83m (for spatial corrections), AmBe and neutron generator (for low energy nuclear recoils).

The prompt scintillation light signal (called S1) detected after energy depositions of known energy gives us a measure of the light yield, in units of detected photoelectrons (PE) per keV.  Therefore, we measure the light yield for all the energy lines mentioned above at different times during the science run. The big XENON1T detector proofs its remarkable stability as the S1 signals stay flat over time for all the different sources.

Relative variation over time of the light yield for different energy lines.

If we look at the relative deviation from the average light yield of the various energy lines, we find that their time trends are in pretty good agreement. The stability level is observed at 0.2% for both the 41 keV gamma and the 5.5 MeV alpha, spanning over almost 1 year time range. This is an excellent demonstration of how smoothly the XENON1T detector operated during the dark matter search data acquisition. Stay tuned!



XMASS Members join XENON

XENON1T is the largest and most sensitive WIMP dark matter detector to date, recording scientific data in the Italian Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso (LNGS). Our collaboration recently grew larger again and now has more than 160 members from 27 institutions. As of December 1st, 2017, key members of the Japanese XMASS collaboration have officially joined XENON and will contribute to the realization of the upcoming XENONnT.

Participants of our collaboration meeting early 2018 in Florence, including our newest colleagues from the Japanese XMASS collaboration.

XMASS is a single-phase liquid xenon experiment in the Kamioka mine, the Japanese underground laboratory hosting the Nobel-prize winning SuperKamiokande experiment. Researchers come from the University of Tokyo (groups of Prof. Shigetaka Moriyama and Prof. Kai Martens), Nagoya University (group of Prof. Yoshitaka Itow) and Kobe University (group of Prof. Kentaro Miuchi). XMASS will continue to record data until the end of this year, in line with the planned start of XENONnT.

XENONnT is an upgrade phase to the currently running XENON1T experiment. With a target mass three times larger than XENON1T, and a considerably reduced background, XENONnT will explore WIMP-nucleon interactions with a ten-fold higher sensitivity than XENON1T. The Japanese groups bring expertise in LXe detector technologies and low background experiments relevant to the XENON Dark Matter program. We are excited about our newest collaborators from Japan as we continue to move forward with the XENON program at LNGS.

A few pictures of the TPC

XENON1T, the most sensitive detector on Earth searching for WIMP dark matter, releases its first result

[Press Release May 2017 – for immediate release. Preprint is on the arxiv]

The best result on dark matter so far! … and we just got started!”.

This is how scientists behind XENON1T, now the most sensitive dark matter experiment world-wide, hosted in the INFN Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso, Italy, commented on their first result from a short 30-day run presented today to the scientific community.


XENON1T installation in the underground hall of Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso. The three story building on the right houses various auxiliary systems. The cryostat containing the LXeTPC is located inside the large water tank on th left, next to the building. (Photo by Roberto Corrieri and Patrick De Perio)

Dark matter is one of the basic constituents of the Universe, five times more abundant than ordinary matter. Several astronomical measurements have corroborated the existence of dark matter, leading to a world-wide effort to observe directly dark matter particle interactions with ordinary matter in extremely sensitive detectors, which would confirm its existence and shed light on its properties. However, these interactions are so feeble that they have escaped direct detection up to this point, forcing scientists to build detectors that are more and more sensitive. The XENON Collaboration, that with the XENON100 detector led the field for years in the past, is now back on the frontline with the XENON1T experiment. The result from a first short 30-day run shows that this detector has a new record low radioactivity level, many orders of magnitude below surrounding materials on Earth. With a total mass of about 3200kg, XENON1T is at the same time the largest detector of this type ever built. The combination of significantly increased size with much lower background implies an excellent dark matter discovery potential in the years to come.


Scientists assembling the XENON1T time projection chamber. (Photo by Enrico Sacchetti)

The XENON Collaboration consists of 135 researchers from the US, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Israel, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates. The latest detector of the XENON family has been in science operation at the LNGS underground laboratory since autumn 2016. The only things you see when visiting the underground experimental site now are a gigantic cylindrical metal tank, filled with ultra-pure water to shield the detector at his center, and a three-story-tall, transparent building crowded with equipment to keep the detector running, with physicists from all over the world. The XENON1T central detector, a so-called Liquid Xenon Time Projection Chamber (LXeTPC), is not visible. It sits within a cryostat in the middle of the water tank, fully submersed, in order to shield it as much as possible from natural radioactivity in the cavern. The cryostat allows keeping the xenon at a temperature of -95°C without freezing the surrounding water. The mountain above the laboratory further shields the detector, preventing it to be perturbed by cosmic rays. But shielding from the outer world is not enough since all materials on Earth contain tiny traces of natural radioactivity. Thus extreme care was taken to find, select and process the materials making up the detector to achieve the lowest possible radioactive content. Laura Baudis, professor at the University of Zürich and professor Manfred Lindner from the Max-Planck-Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg emphasize that this allowed XENON1T to achieve record “silence”, which is necessary to listen with a larger detector much better for the very weak voice of dark matter.

XENON1T first results limit

The spin-independent WIMP-nucleon cross section
limits as a function of WIMP mass at 90% confidence
level (black) for this run of XENON1T. In green and yellow
are the 1- and 2σ sensitivity bands. Results from LUX
(red), PandaX-II (brown), and XENON100 (gray)
are shown for reference.

A particle interaction in liquid xenon leads to tiny flashes of light. This is what the XENON scientists are recording and studying to infer the position and the energy of the interacting particle and whether it might be dark matter or not. The spatial information allows to select interactions occurring in the central 1 ton core of the detector. The surrounding xenon further shields the core xenon target from all materials which already have tiny surviving radioactive contaminants. Despite the shortness of the 30-day science run the sensitivity of XENON1T has already overcome that of any other experiment in the field, probing un-explored dark matter territory.  “WIMPs did not show up in this first search with XENON1T, but we also did not expect them so soon!” says Elena Aprile, Professor at Columbia University and spokesperson of the project. “The best news is that the experiment continues to accumulate excellent data which will allow us to test quite soon the WIMP hypothesis in a region of mass and cross-section with normal atoms as never before. A new phase in the race to detect dark matter with ultra-low background massive detectors on Earth has just began with XENON1T. We are proud to be at the forefront of the race with this amazing detector, the first of its kind.”

As always, feel free to contact the XENON collaboration at