Besides the hunt for dark matter particles, the XENON detectors can be used to search for many other rare processes. One interesting case arises from one of the xenon isotopes itself, namely 124Xe, which is slightly abundant in natural xenon (0.1%). While it is considered stable since its direct decay into 124I is energetically forbidden, there is a rare process in nature, so far only indirectly observed, which would lead to a decay of 124Xe into the isotope 124Te. This requires, in the most probable case, the simultaneous capture of two electrons from the closest atomic shell turning two protons into two neutrons. Since this happens rarely, the corresponding half-life is predicted to be as large as 1022 years, which overshoots the lifetime of the universe by some 12 orders of magnitude. Nevertheless, as the XENON detectors are built for the rare event detection of dark matter particles, they are also very well suited for a search of such a rare process. What would one expect to be the trace of such a decay within the detector? Although the nuclear reaction
124Xe + 2e– → 124Te* + 2νe
would suggest that neutrinos are the signal to search for, as they are a direct product of the decay with a total energy of 2.8MeV, their weak interaction cross-section makes them not detectable. But there are two electrons now missing from the atom’s shell, which is usually from the closest one (K-shell). So there are two “holes” left at an energetically favored position. In a cascade-like process, electrons from upper shells are now dropping down, filling these holes. This releases their former higher binding energy of a characteristic value in the form of secondary particles such as X-rays or Auger electrons. These particles cascade is releasing a summed energy of 64 keV, which is the signature we expect to see with our detector.
Looking for this signal in our well-known XENON100 data from 2011 to 2012 with 225 live days of exposure, we found no signal excess above our background. This way, a lower limit on the half-life of the decay with a value of 6.5×1020 years could be determined using a Bayesian analysis approach. This is close to the optimistic theoretical predictions, but a bit less sensitive than the XMASS detector, which estimated the half-life to be larger than 4.7 x 1021 years.
However, the results from XENON100 can be seen as the preparation for the next step, XENON1T. As XENON1T has about 2kg of 124Xe in its two-ton active xenon target (a factor of 70 more compared to the 29g used in XENON100) it will be more sensitive to this rare decay. Moreover, the background in XENON1T is a factor of 30 smaller in the region of interest. After only five live days of measurement it is thus expected to explore regions no experiment has explored before, and after 2 live years of measurement, we can probe half lives up to 6 x 1022 years (see Fig.1). It has to be emphasized that this data comes for free while searching for dark matter particles, since both searches require the same settings.
Figure 1: Expected sensitivity of XENON1T as a function of live time in days. The aimed duration for the dark matter search is marked at 2 ton years, which would translate into
two years of measurement using 1 ton of the detector mass as a fiducial volume. After 5
days new parameter space is explored.
The XENON1T detector is also prepared to search for competing decay modes of the double electron capture, as it has an improved response to high energy signals. The so far unobserved emission of two positrons and two neutrinos as well as a mixture with one positron emitted and one electron captured simultaneously. While any detection of these decay modes would certainly lead to a deeper understanding of standard nuclear physics another possible decay branch could open the door to physics beyond the Standard Model: The neutrinoless double beta decay. If this hypothetical mode, where no neutrinos would be emitted, would be detected, it would reveal that they are their own anti-particles and annihilate in this process of double beta decay. This would prove the violation of lepton number conservation and, additionally, it could tell something about the mass of neutrinos, which is known to be very small (<eV) but is not determined today. Unfortunately, the expected life time of these decays given by theoretical calculations is even larger than for the process with the emission of two neutrinos.