Observing the Rarest Decay Process Ever Measured

[Press Release April 2019 – for immediate release. Paper published in Nature and preprint on the arxiv.]

The universe is almost 14 billion years old. An inconceivable length of time by human standards – yet compared to some physical processes, it is but a moment. There are radioactive nuclei that wdecay on much longer time scales. Using our XENON1T detector at the INFN Gran Sasso National Laboratory, we were able to observe the decay of Xenon-124 atomic nuclei for the first time.

The half-life of a process is the time after which half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample have decayed away. The half-life measured for Xenon-124 is about one trillion times longer than the age of the universe. This makes the observed radioactive decay, the so-called double electron capture of Xenon-124, the rarest process ever seen happening in a detector. “The fact that we managed to observe this process directly demonstrates how powerful our detection method actually is – also for signals which are not from dark matter,” says Prof. Christian Weinheimer from the University of Münster (Germany) whose group lead the study. In addition, the new result provides information for further investigations on neutrinos, the lightest of all elementary particles whose nature is still not fully understood. XENON1T is a joint experimental project of about 160 scientists from Europe, the US and the Middle East. The results were published in the science journal “Nature”.

A sensitive dark matter detector

The Gran Sasso Laboratory of the National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) in Italy, where scientists are currently searching for dark matter particles is located about 1,400 meters beneath the Gran Sasso massif, well protected from cosmic rays which can produce false signals. Theoretical considerations predict that dark matter should very rarely “collide” with the atoms of the detector. This assumption is fundamental to the working principle of the XENON1T detector: its central part consists of a cylindrical tank of about one meter in length filled with 3,200 kilograms of liquid xenon at a temperature of –95° C. When a dark matter particle interacts with a xenon atom, it transfers energy to the atomic nucleus which subsequently excites other xenon atoms. This leads to the emission of faint signals of ultraviolet light which are detected by means of sensitive light sensors located in the upper and lower parts of the cylinder. The same sensors also detect a minute amount of electrical charge which is released by the collision process.

In double electron capture, two electrons and two protons simultaneously convert into two neutrons and two neutrinos. X-rays are emitted when the electron vacancies are subsequently filled.

The new study shows that the XENON1T detector is also able to measure other rare physical phenomena, such as double electron capture. To understand this process, one should know that an atomic nucleus normally consists of positively charged protons and neutral neutrons, which are surrounded by several atomic shells occupied by negatively charged electrons. Xenon-124, for example, has 54 protons and 70 neutrons. In double electron capture, two protons in the nucleus simultaneously “catch” two electrons from the innermost atomic shell, transform into two neutrons, and emit two neutrinos. The other atomic electrons reorganize themselves to fill in the two holes in the innermost shell. The energy released in this process is carried away by X-rays and so-called Auger electrons. However, these signals are very hard to detect, as double electron capture is a very rare process which is hidden by signals from the omnipresent natural radioactivity.

The measurement

The peak at 64keV from double electron capture of Xenon-124 is clearly visible in this plot of the background spectrum from XENON1T.

This is how the XENON collaboration succeeded with this measurement: The X-rays from the double electron capture in the liquid xenon produced an initial light signal as well as free electrons. The electrons were moved towards the gas-filled upper part of the detector where they generated a second light signal. The time difference between the two signals corresponds to the time it takes the electrons to reach the top of the detector. Scientists used this interval and the information provided by the sensors measuring the signals to reconstruct the position of the double electron capture. The energy released in the decay was derived from the strength of the two signals. All signals from the detector were recorded over a period of more than one year, however, without looking at them at all as the experiment was conducted in a “blind” fashion. This means that the scientists could not access the data in the energy region of interest until the analysis was finalized to ensure that personal expectations did not skew the outcome of the study. Thanks to the detailed understanding of all relevant sources of background signals it became clear that 126 observed events in the data were indeed caused by the double electron capture of Xenon-124.

Using this first-ever measurement, the physicists calculated the enormously long half-life of 1.8×1022 years for the process. This is the slowest process ever measured directly. It is known that the atom Tellurium-128 decays with an even longer half-life, however, its decay was never observed directly and the half-life was inferred indirectly from another process. The new results show how well the XENON1T detector can detect rare processes and reject background signals. While two neutrinos are emitted in the double electron capture process, scientists can now also search for the so-called neutrino-less double electron capture which could shed light on important questions regarding the nature of neutrinos.

Status and outlook

XENON1T acquired data from 2016 until December 2018 when it was switched off. The scientists are currently upgrading the experiment for the new “XENONnT” phase which will feature a three times larger active detector mass. Together with a reduced background level this will boost the detector’s sensitivity by an order of magnitude.

 

Modeling and statistical analysis of the XENON1T data

On May 31st 2018, XENON1T released the result of a search for dark matter interacting with xenon atoms using an exposure of 1 tonne-year. Papers presenting the scientific results are written to be brief, and communicate the most important information to the scientific community. Therefore, many details of the instrument, reconstruction of events and analysis work by the entire collaboration must be left out of the science papers. XENON1T has previously published a paper focusing on the operation of the detector itself. A new paper by XENON1T now goes into the details of the analysis of the XENON1T data, and another one, on the event reconstruction and calibration, is being prepared.

XENON1T detects the scintillation light and ionization electrons that energy depositions in the two tonne liquid xenon target produce. In addition to WIMPs, different background sources can produce an S1+S2 signal. The expected S1,S2 distribution may change depending on whether the energy deposition happens by a recoil on an electron of the xenon atom or the nucleus. This is one of the main methods XENON uses to discriminate against backgrounds, since WIMPs, which scatter on the xenon nucleus, have a mean S2 lower than 99.7% of the dominant background component, which is made up of scatters on electrons.

Modelling how an electronic or nuclear recoil will look like in the detector is crucial both to know the shape of a WIMP signal, and to model the backgrounds well. XENON1T uses a comprehensive fit to multiple calibration sources to constrain the distributions of backgrounds and signals in the analysis space; S1, S2 and the radius from the center axis of the detector.
Some background components are harder to model directly, and are estimated by using sidebands or other data samples. In the XENON1T analysis, coincidences between unrelated, lone S1 and S2 events were modeled this way, in addition to the surface background– events occurring close to or at the detector wall.

Models of various backgrounds and the expected WIMP signal in two of the parameters extracted from each even, scintillation S1 and ionization S2 signals.


The models of each background and the signal, for two separate science runs, are put together in a likelihood, which is a mathematical function of the WIMP signal strength as well as nuisance parameters. These are unknowns that could change the analysis, such as the true expectation value for each background component. The likelihood also contains multiple terms representing measurements of nuisance parameter, which constrain them when the likelihood is fitted to the data collected by XENON1T.

The value of the likelihood evaluated at a specific signal strength has a random distribution which is estimated using simulated realizations of the experimental outcome. The final statistical limits are computed by comparing the likelihood computed on the actual data with the distributions found from the simulations: 

Likelihood as function of the signal strength (measured by the WIMP-nucleon cross-section)
The gray area shows likelihoods that corresponds to a 90% exclusion. The confidence interval– the region of signal strength compatible with the observed data– is the region where the likelihood lies below the gray band.


The models and tools used in the XENON1T spin-independent analysis are also used to explore alternative models of dark matter, such as spin-independent interactions and scatterings between WIMPs and pions, with more to come!

 

The first limits on spin-independent WIMP-pion interactions

XENON1T was built to observe the recoil of xenon-atoms, which may be caused by the interaction of a Weakly Interacting Massive Particle (WIMP) as it passes through the detector. A recoiling xenon atom produces scintillation light and ionization that XENON1T detects as an S1 and S2 signal, which carry information of the recoil type, energy and position in the detector. The first results of the XENON1T were published on the spin-independent WIMP-nucleon interaction, which is expected to dominate the WIMP scattering rate. However, models of WIMPs exist where this contribution would be suppressed or vanish. XENON has therefore performed searches for alternative WIMP-recoil spectra, such as the one expected if the scattering depends on the nucleon spins.

A careful accounting of all the possible WIMP-nucleon interactions showed that WIMPs can also interact with pions— subatomic particles that contribute to the strong force that binds atoms together. The figure illustrates a WIMP (χ) scattering via a mediator line on a pion (π) exchanged between a proton and a neutron in the xenon nucleus. The xenon atom recoils from the interaction, which can be observed with our detector. Similarly to the spin-independent recoil, the wimp-pion interaction happens in a way where the WIMP scatters coherently, off the entire xenon atom together. 

A WIMP scattering on a pion exchanged within the xenon nucleus

The analysis was performed with the same tools as the main XENON1T spin-independent WIMP search, and 1 tonne-years of data. No significant evidence for a signal was observed, so we set the first limits on the spin-independent WIMP-pion interaction strength. An open access pre-print of the paper can be found on the arxiv.

XENON1T Result covered by CERN Ccourier

XENON1T results from a 1 ton-year dark matter exposure.

Our latest dark matter results from XENON1T, the most sensitive search for WIMPs with an unprecedented liquid xenon exposure of 1 ton-years and a world-record low background level is featured in the July/August 2018 edition of the CERN Courier, the International Journal of High-Energy Physics. Read the full article here.

 

Search for bosonic super-WIMP interactions with the XENON100 experiment

While the microscopic nature of dark matter in the Universe is largely unknown, the simplest assumption which can explain all existing observations is that it is made of a new, as yet undiscovered particle. Leading examples are weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), axions or axion-like particles (ALPs), and sterile neutrinos. WIMPs with masses in the GeV range, as well as axions/ALPs are examples for cold dark matter while sterile neutrinos with masses at the keV-scale are an example for warm dark matter. Cold dark matter particles were nonrelativistic at the time of their decoupling from the rest of the particles in the early universe. In contrast, warm dark matter particles remain relativistic for longer, retain a larger velocity dispersion, and thus more easily free-stream out from small-scale perturbations. Astrophysical and cosmological observations constrain the mass of warm dark matter to be larger than about 3keV/c2, with a more recent lower limit from Lyman-alpha forest data being 5.3keV/c2. Another example for warm dark matter particles are bosonic super-WIMPs. These particles, with masses at the keV-scale, could couple electromagnetically to standard model particles via the axioelectric effect, which is an analogous process to the photoelectric effect, and thus be detected in direct detection experiments.

The limit derived from the XENON100 experiment on the coupling of SuperWIMPs.

We searched for vector and pseudo-scalar bosonic super-WIMPs with the XENON100 experiment. The super-WIMPs can be absorbed in liquid xenon and the expected signature is a monoenergetic peak at the super-WIMP’s rest mass. A profile likelihood analysis of data with an exposure of 224.6 live days × 34kg showed no evidence for a signal above the expected background. We thus obtained new upper limits in the (8 − 125) keV/c2 mass range, excluding couplings to electrons with coupling constants of gae > 3 × 10−13 for pseudo-scalar super-WIMPs and α′/α > 2 × 10−28 for vector super-WIMPs, respectively. We expect to improve upon these results with the XENON1T detector, which operates a larger mass of liquid xenon with reduced backgrounds. Our results were published in Physical Review D 96, 122002 (2017) and are of course also available at the arxiv.

Intrinsic backgrounds from Rn and Kr in the XENON100 experiment

XENON1T is currently the largest liquid xenon detector in the search for dark matter. To fully exploit the capabilities of the ton-scale target mass, a thorough understanding of radioactive background sources is required. In this paper we use the full data of the main science runs of the XENON100 experiment that were taken over a period of about 4 years to asses the target-intrinsic background sources radon (Rn-222), thoron (Rn-220) and krypton (Kr-85). We derive distributions of the individual radionuclides inside the detector (see Figure below) and quantify their abundances during the main three science runs. We find good agreement with external measurements of radon emanation and krypton concentrations, and report an observed reduction in concentrations of radon daughters that we attribute to the plating-out of charged ions on the negatively biased cathode.

The preprint of the full study is available on arXiv:1708.03617.

Figure: Spatial distributions of the various radon populations identified in XENON100.

Search for WIMP Inelastic Scattering Off Xenon Nuclei With XENON100

Most direct detection searches focus on elastic scattering of galactic dark matter particles off nuclei, where the keV-scale nuclear recoil energy is to be detected. In this work, the alternative process of inelastic scattering is explored, where a WIMP-nucleus scattering induces a transition to a low-lying excited nuclear state. The experimental signature is a nuclear recoil detected together with the prompt de-excitation photon. We consider the scattering of dark matter particle off 129Xe isotope, which has an abundance of 26.4\% in natural xenon, and when excited to it lowest-lying 3/2+ state above the ground state it emits a 36.9 keV photon. This electromagnetic nuclear decay has a half-life of 0.97 ns.

The WIMP inelastic scattering  is complementary to spin-dependent, elastic scattering, and dominates the integrated rates above 10 keV of deposited energy. In addition, in case of a positive signal, the observation of inelastic scattering would provide a clear indication of the spin-dependent nature of the fundamental interaction.

The search is performed using XENON100 Run-II science data, which corresponds to an exposure of 34×224.6 kg×days. No evidence of dark matter is found and a limit on dark matter inelastic interaction cross section is set. Our result, shown in the Figure, is the most stringent limit for the spin-dependent inelastic scattering to date, and set the stage for a sensitive search of inelastic WIMP-nucleus scattering in running or upcoming liquid xenon experiments such as XENON1T, XENONnT, LZ, and DARWIN.

Full details may be found in this article: Phys. Rev. D 96, 022008 and on the arxiv.

The traditional approach for WIMP nucleus interaction studies in direct detection experiment is to consider just two types of interactions, the spin independent (SI) and the spin dependent (SD) ones. However, these are not the only types of interactions possible. In recent years, a non-relativistic effective field theory approach has been studied. In this framework, 14 new interaction operators arise. These operators include the SI and SD ones among others. Some of these new operators are momentum dependent and predict a non-exponential event rate as function of energy, in contrast to the traditional expected signals. Moreover, some of these operators predict energy recoils above the upper threshold of the standard analyses done in direct detection experiments. For XENON100, this threshold is 43keV (nuclear recoil).

In this analysis, we extend the upper energy threshold up to ~240 keV. This value is dictated by low statistics in calibration data above it. We divide our signal region into two regimes, low recoil energy, on which we perform the same “standard” analysis done for the SI and SD cases, and high recoil energy, which is the main focus of this work.

Summary of regions of interest, backgrounds, and observed data. ER calibration data, namely 60Co and 232Th data, is shown as light cyan dots. NR calibration data (241AmBe) is shown as light red dots. Dark matter search data is shown as black dots. The red line is the threshold between the low and high energy channels. The lines in blue are the bands. For the low energy channel these are operator and mass dependent, but are shown here for a 50 GeV/c^2 WIMP using the O1 operator. For the high-energy region, the nine analysis bins are presented also in blue lines.

We find that our data is compatible with background expectations. Using a binned profile likelihood, we thus produce 90% CL exclusion limits for both elastic scattering and inelastic WIMP scattering for each operator. Find the preprint of this study on the arxiv.

The XENON100 limits (90% CLS) on isoscalar dimensionless coupling for all elastic scattering EFT operators. The
limits are indicated in solid black. The expected sensitivity is shown in green and yellow (1σ and 2σ respectively). Limits from CDMS-II Si, CDMS-II Ge, and SuperCDMS [30] are presented as blue asterisks, green triangles, and orange rectangles, respectively.

Material radioassay and selection for XENON1T

To attain the high sensitivity needed to detect a dark matter particle with a xenon time-projection chamber, all other sources of particle interactions need to be eliminated or minimized. These interactions are classified as background events. Radiogenic backgrounds, in particular, come from radioactive isotopes within the detector materials that decay and lead to alpha, beta, or gamma emissions. Neutrons from spontaneous fission of heavy isotopes or from secondary reactions within the detector materials also contribute to the radiogenic background and can mimic a dark matter signal.

To minimize the radiogenic background, the goal of the XENON1T radioassay program is to measure the radioactivity of all materials that are needed to build the detector and to select only the most radiopure materials for the final construction. To do this, we use mass spectrometry techniques and high-purity germanium spectrometers that are capable of measuring radioactivity at the level of 10-6 decays per second in a kilogram of material (Bq/kg). As comparison, a typical banana has an activity of ~102 Bq/kg!

Because natural radioactivity is present in the soil, the water, and in the air, it is also present in the XENON detector materials. The Figure shows a measurement obtained with a germanium spectrometer of the gamma rays emitted from a sample of photomultiplier tubes. The background (purple spectrum) is subtracted from the sample (pink spectrum) in order to quantify the expected activity from a XENON1T component or material sample.

A high-purity germanium spectrometer measurement of gamma rays emitted from a sample of XENON1T photosensors. Some prominent isotopes from different sources are labeled: primordial uranium and thorium decay chains (green), potassium (red), man-made (orange) and cosmogenic (orange) isotopes.

The most common radioactive isotopes present in the Earth are primordial uranium and thorium, each of which decays into a series of other radioactive isotopes (marked in green in the Figure). Potassium (red) is also a common, primordial isotope that is found in soil, and subsequently in food and in your body. Other isotopes that are found in detector materials come from interactions with cosmic rays (yellow) or from man-made activities (blue), i.e. industrial or medical use, nuclear power plant emissions, nuclear accidents, and military testing.

The measured activities of each material selected for detector construction are used in simulations of XENON1T to determine the expected background. This allows for a prediction of the attainable sensitivity of the detector to dark matter interactions. The radioassay measurement results from over 100 material samples are presented in our new paper “Material radioassay and selection for the XENON1T dark matter experiment”.

Results from a Calibration of XENON100 Using a Source of Dissolved Radon-220

With 2 tonnes of target material, XENON1T is currently the largest liquid xenon detector in the search for dark matter. The detector’s immense volume greatly increases our chances of successfully observing that rare scatter of a dark matter particle off a xenon atom that we have sought for more than a decade, like casting a larger net to catch more fish. However, the size also makes it considerably more difficult for us to know how our detector would respond to the scatters of dark matter or to the scatters of electrons or gamma rays that would obscure our view of dark matter. These electrons and gammas come from ambient radon, impurities in the xenon, and even the detector components themselves. While their effects can be reduced through an appropriate selection of location and the materials, they cannot be completely eliminated. Hence, it is necessary to understand how our detector responds to electrons and gammas in contrast to dark matter. A thorough understanding of these backgrounds is arguably the single most crucial part of our endeavor.

Historically, in XENON10 and XENON100, we used external radioactive sources of cobalt and thorium, which emit gammas. Unfortunately, a drawback of XENON1T’s size is that it hobbles the rate of interactions in the central region of the detector, which is the most important for us in understanding our detector. For this reason, we needed to identify an internal, or dissolved, radioactive source that can be injected directly into the detector’s liquid xenon target volume.

One possibility is a source of 220Rn, which we characterize using the XENON100 detector. The source is well suited to calibrate our detector because it can imitate the effects of ambient radon (222Rn). The radioactive decay of 212Pb (a daughter of 220Rn) generates an electron just like 214Pb (a daughter of 222Rn), and thus their responses are very similar. The only thing we have to verify is that we can spread the 212Pb atoms throughout the detector volume. Due to the particular design of XENON100, many gamma events from other 220Rn daughters prevent us from identifying which events arise from 212Pb. So, we use the distribution of 212Bi, the daughter of 212Pb, to clearly show that 212Pb reaches even the centermost part of the detector. This distribution is shown in the figure below. Once that calibration is done, we do not have to proactively clean our detector, as would be the case with alternatives. Since the half-life of 212Pb is about half a day, we just wait a few days for the detector to return to normal.

The source also provides alpha particles that prove useful in understanding our background. The alpha particles of 216Po and 220Rn enable us to easily pinpoint their locations at the time of decay. And because they happen in quick succession (about 0.1 seconds), the daughter 216Po can be paired with its parent 220Rn. These pairs show us the trajectory of 216Po in the liquid xenon and how long it takes to decay. With both the time and the displacement, we can calculate the average velocity of the 216Po atom. If we then determine the velocities of all identified RnPo pairs, we can create a map of atomic motion in the full xenon volume of a given detector, as shown here:

In the case of XENON100, we find that atoms move at speeds up to 8 mm/s. They move in a single convection cell with a small contribution that results from an electric field applied to the xenon volume. This aspect tells us that an appreciable fraction of 216Po atoms is left ionized after the decay of 220Rn.

In general, a known map of atomic motion motivates two additional techniques to help us understand the backgrounds. Firstly, such a map enables us to identify the presence of “dead regions” through which liquid xenon does not flow very well. This feature is important for keeping the xenon free of impurities. Secondly, with sufficiently slow atomic motion or sufficiently large detector volumes, we could match 214Pb to its parent 222Rn or 218Po following a method similar to the one described previously for 220Rn. This tagging process would clearly distinguish 214Pb background events from the coveted dark matter event.

All of the finer details about this dissolved radon source can be found in the dedicated publication in Phys. Rev. D: E. Aprile et al. (XENON), Results from a calibration of XENON100 using a source of dissolved radon-220, Phys. Rev. D 95, 072008 (2017). This publication is of course also available as a pre-print as arXiv:1611.03585.