Tag Archives: axions

Observation of Excess Events in the XENON1T Dark Matter Experiment

Press release, June 17, 2020. For immediate release. A pre-print of this publication reporting the data analysis and details of the observed excess is available on arxiv.org, and in the meantime also directly here for download. These results were first presented on June 17 in a dedicated webinar by graduate student Evan Shockley from the University of Chicago. The slides of this presentation and a recording are available.

Scientists from the international XENON collaboration announced today that data from their XENON1T, the world’s most sensitive dark matter experiment, show a surprising excess of events. The scientists do not claim to have found dark matter. Instead, they say to have observed an unexpected rate of events, the source of which is not yet fully understood. The signature of the excess is similar to what might result from a tiny residual amount of tritium (a hydrogen atom with one proton and two neutrons), but could also be a sign of something more exciting—such as the existence of a new particle known as the solar axion or the indication of previously unknown properties of neutrinos.

The XENON1T detector. Visible is the bottom array of photomultiplier tubes, and the copper structure that creates the electric drift field.

XENON1T was operated deep underground at the INFN Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso in Italy, from 2016 to 2018. It was primarily designed to detect dark matter, which makes up 85% of the matter in the universe. So far, scientists have only observed indirect evidence of dark matter, and a definitive, direct detection is yet to be made. So-called WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) are among the theoretically preferred candidates, and XENON1T has thus far set the best limit on their interaction probability over a wide range of WIMP masses. In addition to WIMP dark matter, XENON1T was also sensitive to different types of new particles and interactions that could explain other open questions in physics. Last year, using the same detector, these scientists published in Nature the observation of the rarest nuclear decay ever directly measured.

The excess observed in XENON1T in the electronic recoil background at low energies, compared to the level expected from known backgrounds indicated as the red line.

The XENON1T detector was filled with 3.2 tonnes of ultra-pure liquefied xenon, 2.0 t of which served as a target for particle interactions. When a particle crosses the target, it can generate tiny signals of light and free electrons from a xenon atom. Most of these interactions occur from particles that are known to exist. Scientists therefore carefully estimated the number of background events in XENON1T. When data of XENON1T were compared to known backgrounds, a surprising excess of 53 events over the expected 232 events was observed.

This raises the exciting question: where is this excess coming from?

One explanation could be a new, previously unconsidered source of background, caused by the presence of tiny amounts of tritium in the XENON1T detector. Tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, spontaneously decays by emitting an electron with an energy similar to what was observed. Only a few tritium atoms for every 10 25 (10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000!) xenon atoms would be needed to explain the excess. Currently, there are no independent measurements that can confirm or disprove the presence of tritium at that level in the detector, so a definitive answer to this explanation is not yet possible.

More excitingly, another explanation could be the existence of a new particle. In fact, the excess observed has an energy spectrum similar to that expected from axions produced in the Sun. Axions are hypothetical particles that were proposed to preserve a time-reversal symmetry of the nuclear force, and the Sun may be a strong source of them. While these solar axions are not dark matter candidates, their detection would mark the first observation of a well-motivated but never observed class of new particles, with a large impact on our understanding of fundamental physics, but also on astrophysical phenomena. Moreover, axions produced in the early universe could also be the source of dark matter.

Alternatively, the excess could also be due to neutrinos, trillions of which pass through your body, unhindered, every second. One explanation could be that the magnetic moment (a property of all particles) of neutrinos is larger than its value in the Standard Model of elementary particles. This would be a strong hint to some other new physics needed to explain it.

Of the three explanations considered by the XENON collaboration, the observed excess is most consistent with a solar axion signal. In statistical terms, the solar axion hypothesis has a significance of 3.5 sigma, meaning that there is about a 2/10,000 chance that the observed excess is due to a random fluctuation rather than a signal. While this significance is fairly high, it is not large enough to conclude that axions exist. The significance of both the tritium and neutrino magnetic moment hypotheses corresponds to 3.2 sigma, meaning that they are also consistent with the data.

XENON1T is now upgrading to its next phase–XENONnT–with an active xenon mass three times larger and a background that is expected to be lower than that of XENON1T. With better data from XENONnT, the XENON collaboration is confident it will soon find out whether this excess is a mere statistical fluke, a background contaminant, or something far more exciting: a new particle or interaction that goes beyond known physics.

What is Dark Matter made of?

Part of the mystery of Dark Matter is that we know it is there– just not what it is.
In Discover magazine you can read about some of the top candidates:
https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/what-is-dark-matter-made-of-these-are-the-top-candidates. The primary candidate that XENON searches for is a Weakly Interacting Massive Particle (WIMP): Including our main spin-independent search, as well as further WIMP  interaction models. In addition, recent XENON analyses have constrained a number of alternative models, including Axion-like particles and dark photons.

First axion results from the XENON100 experiment

E. Aprile et al. (XENON100), First Axion Results from the XENON100 Experiment, Physical Review D 90, 062009 (2014) and arXiv:1404.1455.

Is it better a dark matter WIMP or the Imp from GoT? I don’t know, but I would rather advice you to not forget the axions from GUT – Grand Unification Theories. Axions, if they exist, could solve several yet unsolved problems in understanding our Universe and in the description of the forces that govern the subatomic world. The axions have been postulated by Roberto Peccei and Helen Quinn in 1977 to explain the discrepancy between theory and observation in Quantum Chromodynamics for what concern the Charge-Parity Violation. They could be an excellent dark matter candidate and solve at the same time the CPV problem. What does this mean?

In the Standard Model of particle physics, the fundamental force that regulates the interaction among the quarks is called the Strong Force. Let me remind you that the quarks are thought to be the fundamental constituent of the hadrons, among which we have the nucleons, i.e. the protons and neutrons which made the atoms. We know that the quarks come with a colour. To be clear, this colour is just a conventional name without implying that quarks are literally red, green or blue. It’s just a way to distinguish different kinds of quarks. Because of these colours, the quantum theory formalism that describes the quarks gets the name of chromo: Quantum Chromo Dynamics or QCD.

Now, in the Standard Model we have another force, called the Weak Force. This Weak Force is responsible of the decay of the nuclei; and whenever a neutrino is involved. Why do we care about Weak Interaction if the axons deal with Strong one? This is because of the CP symmetry violation.

Already in 1964 it was found that the Weak Interaction violates the CP symmetry. The fundamental particles may come with a charge (C), like the electron, and with a parity (P), which can be seen as a spatial symmetry. Like the human face which is symmetric (although not perfectly symmetric) between left and right. Before 1964 it was expected that by changing the charge of a particle (performing a so called charge conjugation) you get something different from what you had at the beginning: a positron is not an electron, but it is its charged-conjugated partner. The same thing was expected to happen with the parity conjugation: imagine to put a particle in front of a mirror, the mirrored particle won’t be the same as the original one.

However, it was believed that if you combine these two transformations (if you make a CP conjugation) you obtain the same situation as the one present at the beginning of the process. Well, in 1964, it was proven that this is not the case for the Weak Interactions, that is to say: Weak Interactions violate the CP symmetry. Nowadays we understand this process better and we can precisely describe this violation within the Standard Model of particle physics.

This CP symmetry violation, although perfectly fine with the Standard Model, has not been observed in the Strong Interaction. Imagine that you see a leaf that is about to fall from a branch, but never falls. The fall is predicted by the gravity, but it doesn’t happen. There must be something wrong! Or maybe we must be missing something. Like, the leaf being stuck to the branch. So, what is it happening to the Strong Interactions? Why haven’t we yet observed the CP violation in the Strong sector of the Standard Model?

We don’t know… yet. To solve this problem, Peccei and Quinn have introduced this new particle, the axion, that takes away the CP violation in the Strong Interaction processes, restoring the symmetry. It is like preventing the leaf to fall, and making the violation invisible. Why is this important for us?

Simple: now that the Higgs boson has been discovered and we have a clearer idea on how the particles acquire the mass they have, we are still unable to explain why we are living in a matter-dominated universe rather than an antimatter-dominated one. The definition of what is matter and what is antimatter is a purely human artifact: the two options, matter or antimatter universes, would be completely indistinguishable in terms of the laws of nature. The only difference you might experience is that instead of switching on the light letting the electrons flowing, you would do the same using positrons instead. So why the Nature has chosen the matter (electron) instead of the antimatter (positron)?

We think that the solution lies in understanding the CP violation. And the axion is one of the keystones in the building of this cathedral. There are several experimental groups searching for these particles, and many theoretical physicists are working on various axion models (oscillating between predictions and readjustment, once experimental results get published).

Concerning the experimental searches, it was recently realized that the dark matter detectors (like CDMS, EDELWEISS or xenon-based instruments) can be particularly suitable for such a challenge. About one year ago, we understood that XENON100 could play in the world championship of this competition, maybe winning the AC (not the America’s Cup, but the Axion’s Cup). So we have involved ourselves in this venture.

Supported by several theoretical models (also arising from Grand Unification Theories) we expect the axions to interact with the normal matter by coupling  either to photons, nucleon or electrons. By normal baryonic matter we mean the building blocks that constitute the Universe to which we naturally interacts. Everything you see, everything you touch is normal baryonic matter. Also XENON100 is made only of baryonic matter.

With it we could test the axion-electron coupling. This means that to explore the existence of this very elusive particles, we tried to observe the probability of an axion to kick out an electron from the xenon atoms (see the figure below). This process is called the axio-electric effect.

The axio-electric effect

The axio-electric effect converts an axion A into an electron e-, in the presence of either a nucleus Z+ or another electron e-.

The axio-electric effect is very similar to the photo-electric effect (whose discovery won Albert Einstein the Nobel Prize of Physics in 1921), with a crucial difference though: in our case instead of a photon we consider an axion hitting the electron and ionizing the xenon target. The axio-electric effect was first introduced and formalized by A. Derevianko and others in the late 1990s. What happen when an axion hits our xenon target?

It generates a small spark, which is immediately detected by the photomultiplier tubes, which continuously monitor the situation inside XENON100. XENON100 particularly good in discovering the axions through this effect. The secret lies in the cleanliness of the detector. XENON100 is definitively one of the cleanest places of the Universe. In which sense? Everything that is surrounding us is radioactive, emits radiation which continuously hits us: when you wash your hands you receive quite some amount of radiation, particularly if the washbasin is made of ceramic, because of the cobalt contained in the ceramic. This radiation is completely harmless for your body so we never worry about it. But in contrast, if you put the same amount of ceramic inside XENON100, the whole experiment would be spoiled! Hence, every single component has been carefully selected and the detector is operated in such a way that everything that generates a spark in its interior can be considered as good signal, and not some spurious radiation.

gAe_Galactic_noS2width_sensitivity-exclusion_withCLS

To give you an idea of the cleanliness of the XENON100 detector: imagine that you could sit inside the inner part of the XENON detector (wear the proper clothes, since the temperature is about -100 degrees). That place is so radiation-clean that you will have to wait for about a day between one low-energy event and another. All this means that if we see some light we have quite a good chance that this light is coming from something interesting — such as axions.

We have carefully run our experiment for more than a year, taking care of it like a sacred cow. We then skimmed the data that we collected during that time. At the end of the skimming procedure we have found no evidences of axions, as shown below.

gAe_Solar_noS2width_sensitivity-exclusion

What you see in the plot is the following: on the y-axis we show the coupling of the axion with the electron, i.e. a way to describe the probability they interact with the electrons; on the x-axis we shod the hypothetical mass of the axion. Since we don’t know either the coupling nor the mass, we have to plot them in such a graph, in order to check where they like to live (for a given mass the corresponding coupling and vice-versa). In these so-called exclusion plots, we show different experiments (whose names you can find on the plot) which have excluded certain phase space: each point [coupling, mass] above the line for a particular experiment has been rejected, and if the axion exist, it can be only be in the region below these lines. For example, it is highly impossible that an axion in the galaxy can have a mass of 2 keV and a coupling to the electrons 1E-11 (i.e. one in eight hundredth of millionth), since these characteristic have been excluded by CoGeNT, CDMS, EDELWEISS and more recently by XENON100. An axion with a mass of 2 keV and a coupling of 1E-13 is still possible: we haven’t been able to search for that yet. You can think of it like fishing: we try to go deeper and deeper with our fishing rods in different places of the lake. You can immediately see that the XENON100 has reached the deepest level in this search with respect to the other fishermen.

It has taken 40 years before finding the Higgs boson. The hunt for the axion has just started. We are out in front for tracking down these fundamental, elusive particles.