Tag Archives: dark matter

XENON1T probes deeper into Dark Matter WIMPs, with 1300 kg of cold Xe atoms

Results from XENON1T, the world’s largest and most sensitive detector dedicated to a direct search for Dark Matter in the form of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs), are reported today (Monday, 28th May) by the spokesperson, Prof. Elena Aprile of Columbia University, in a seminar at the hosting laboratory, the INFN Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso (LNGS), in Italy. The international collaboration of more than 165 researchers from 27 institutions, has successfully operated XENON1T, collecting an unprecedentedly large exposure of about 1 tonne x year with a 3D imaging liquid xenon time projection chamber. The data are consistent with the expectation from background, and place the most stringent limit on spin-independent interactions of WIMPs with ordinary matter for a WIMP mass higher than 6 GeV/c². The sensitivity achieved with XENON1T is almost four orders of magnitude better than that of XENON10, the first detector of the XENON Dark Matter project, which has been hosted at LNGS since 2005. Steadily increasing the fiducial target mass from the initial 5 kg to the current 1300 kg, while simultaneously decreasing the background rate by a factor 5000, the XENON collaboration has continued to be at the forefront of Dark Matter direct detection, probing deeper into the WIMP parameter space.

Shown are the limits on WIMP interactions, derived from one year of XENON1T data. The inset compares our limit and sensitivity with the limit and sensitivities of previous experiments.

WIMPs are a class of Dark Matter candidates which are being frantically searched with experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, in space, and on Earth. Even though about a billion WIMPs are expected to cross a surface of one square meter per second on Earth, they are extremely difficult to detect. Results from XENON1T show that WIMPs, if they indeed comprise the Dark Matter in our galaxy, will result in a rare signal, so rare that even the largest detector built so far can not see it directly. XENON1T is a cylindrical detector of approximately one meter height and diameter, filled with liquid xenon at -95°C, with a density three times that of water. In XENON1T, the signature of a WIMP interaction with xenon atoms is a tiny flash of scintillation light and a handful of ionization electrons, which themselves are turned into flashes of light. Both light signals are simultaneously recorded with ultra-sensitive photodetectors, giving the energy and 3D spatial information on an event-by-event basis.

In developing this unique type of detector to search for a rare WIMP signal, many challenges had to be overcome; first and foremost the reduction of the overwhelmingly large background from many sources, from radioactivity to cosmic rays. Today, XENON1T is the largest Dark Matter experiment with the lowest background ever measured, counting a mere 630 events in one year and one tonne of xenon in the energy region of interest for a WIMP search. The search results, submitted to Physical Review Letters, are based on 1300 kg out of the total 2000 kg active xenon target and 279 days of data, making it the first WIMP search with a noble liquid target exposure of 1.0 tonne x year. Only two background events were expected in the innermost, cleanest region of the detector, but none were detected, setting the most stringent limit on WIMPs with masses above 6 GeV/c² to date. XENON1T continues to acquire high quality data and the search will continue until it will be upgraded with a larger mass detector, being developed by the collaboration. With another factor of four increase in fiducial target mass, and ten times less background rate, XENONnT will be ready in 2019 for a new exploration of particle Dark Matter at a level of sensitivity nobody imagined when the project started in 2002.

XENON1T presented at the german physics society spring meeting

The spring meeting of the german physics society took place from 19th to 23rd March in Würzburg, a very historic city with its baroque Residence from 1744 that belongs to the UNESCO world heritage. The meeting is a yearly get-together of physicists working in german institutions and provides the opportunity to exchange and learn about new projects and results within the particle physics community. The conference program can be found here.

During my presentation of the XENON1T experiment, I tried to share my excitement about the upcoming results from the new data set of our second science run (SR1) that was acquired during the course of last year within 247 live days. Here is one slide showing the collected data in the S2 vs. S1 space on the right:

For comparison, the data from the first science run (SR0) that was ended by an earthquake is shown in the left figure. Already with SR0 which was a factor of 8 shorter than SR1 we could set the most stringent limit on spin-independent WIMP-nucleon cross-sections and prove a detector background level that makes XENON1T the most sensitive experiment worldwide. Hence, we are eager to unblind the signal region (marked by the blue band) in the new data set after some final checks of the analysis and find out if we actually measured a few WIMP events. We would be able to see a 3 sigma excess of a signal with a cross section just below the upper limit of SR0 with more than 50% probability. So maybe the discovery of dark matter is just around the corner?


XENON1T presented at Rencontres de Moriond Electroweak

Last week I had the opportunity to present the XENON1T experiment at the Recontres de Moriond electroweak conference in La Thuile Italy in the beautiful Aosta Valley. This meeting is one of the most important meetings for LHC physics, but has slowly expanded to encapsulate a variety of topics, including the hunt for dark matter. The conference program and slides are available on indico. The XENON1T presentation focused on our dark matter search results from last spring as well as the upcoming result using about a factor of 10 more exposure, which is under intense preparation for release. The whole presentation is available from the indico page but here is one slide from it:

Here we discuss how we were able to increase the amount of liquid xenon we use for our dark matter search from ~1000kg to ~1300kg. The top left plot shows an example larger search volume (red) compared to the smaller volume used for the first result. But it’s not so simple as just adding volume. While our inner detector is completely free of WIMP-like background, the outer radii contain background components that can mimic WIMPs. This is illustrated in the bottom right plot where the background-free inner volume (right) is contrasted with the full search volume containing the outer radial sections (left). The full volume has a contribution from PTFE (Teflon) surface background (green contour and points) that is absent as soon as we consider only the inner volume.

Our statistical interpretation has been updated so it is smart enough to take this into account. We parameterize our entire search region in both radial and spatial dimensions with expected signal and background distributions described at each location. This allows us to fully exploit the sensitivity of our innermost background-free volumes while also gaining a modest improvement from the outermost ones.

The energy spectrum and resolution of XENON1T

The search for new physics with a large underground xenon detector is like listening to your favorite song in a quiet room with high end headphones for the first time. Even if you have listened to the song a thousand times, you will be surprised by all the small nuances that have been there all along and that you did not hear before. This is either because it was too loud around you or because your headphones were not good enough. The quiet room in this analogy is the xenon detector that has been made from materials selected for their ultra-low radioactivity and that is shielded by a water tank, a mountain and ultimately the xenon in the detector itself. The high end headphones on the other hand are the extremely sensitive photomultipliers, data acquisition system and tailor-made software to read out the signals produced by particles interacting inside the detector.

As you may have read before on this blog (we love to point this out…) XENON1T is the lowest background dark matter detector in the world. But the fact that the detector is so quiet does not mean that it does not measure anything. As a very sensitive instrument it is able to detect even the faintest signals from radioactive decays in the detector materials or the xenon itself. Over the course of one year these decays amount to a sizeable amount of data. The picture below shows what this looks like.

A preliminary energy spectrum from electronic recoil background data for the second science run of the XENON1T experiment.

The x-axis denotes the energies of particles measured with the XENON1T detector. These are mostly electrons, x-rays and higher energy $\gamma$-rays. The y-axis shows how many of these particles have been counted over the whole measurement time of the last science run of the experiment. In order to have a better comparability with similar experiments, the event count has been divided by the live time of the experiment, its mass and the step size on the energy axis (the binning) in which we count. One can see that even in the highest peaks we measure less than one event per kilogram detector material and day of measurement time in a 100 keV energy window. A quiet room, indeed. And the features in the spectrum are all those nuances that one could not see before. So what are they?

One can divide the spectrum into several regions. Only the small portion of data in the very left of the plot next to the first grey-shaded region is relevant to the standard dark matter search. The heavy and non-relativistic WIMP is expected to only deposit very little energy, so it resides here. The following grey region is blinded, which means it has deliberately been made inacessible to XENON analysers. The reason for this is that it might contain traces of a rare nuclear decay of Xe-124, the two neutrino double electron capture, that has not been observed until now, and we do not want to bias ourselves in looking for it. The large region from about 100-2300 keV contains multiple peaks. Each of these peaks belongs to a monoenergetic $\gamma$-line of a radioactive isotope contained in the detector materials or the extremely pure xenon itself. One can easily see that the peaks are sitting on an irregular continuous pedestal. This is created by $\gamma$-rays depositing only part of their total energy due to Compton scattering inside or outside the detector, $\beta$ decays of radioisotopes inside the detector, and the two neutrino double $\beta$-decay of Xe-136. The latter produces a continuous energy spectrum over the whole energy range that ends at 2458 keV. The decay is rare, but becomes relevant due to the large amount of Xe-136 in the detector and the relative smallness of other background contributions. Xe-136 is also responsible for the second gray-shaded region at high energies which might contain an experimental signature of its neutrinoless double $\beta$-decay. This hypothetical decay mode would produce a monoenergetic line centered at the end of the aforementioned spectrum at 2458 keV. The observation of this decay would be a gateway to new physics and complements the physics program of XENON1T. As their signatures have to be distinguished from other background components the energy resolution of the detector becomes crucial.

Preliminary energy resolution of the XENON1T experiment as a function of the measured particle energy.

To grasp the concept of energy resolution one can imagine the following situation in the energy spectrum. If you have two peaks next to one another, one your sought-after signal and one a pesky background, how far do they have to be apart in order to be seen as individual peaks? This of course relies on how wide they are. Thus, the energy resolution in XENON1T is characterized by the width of peaks in the energy spectrum relative to their measured energy. By fitting Gaussian functions to all the peaks in the spectrum at the top one obtains the ratio of peak width to peak center. This is what the above plot shows for several liquid xenon dark matter experiments. One can see that with an increase in particle energy the resolution improves. It is also evident that XENON1T leads the pack over a wide energy range. This is underlines that XENON1T is the astroparticle physics equivalent of high-end headphones. With these the XENON collaboration is in the position to pursue several exciting physics channels apart from weakly interacting massive particles. So stay tuned for the analyses to come.

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.

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.

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 contact@xenon1t.org.

Search for magnetic inelastic dark matter with XENON100

Search for magnetic inelastic dark matter with XENON100

There is the long-standing claim of the DAMA/LIBRA collaboration about a detection of dark matter via the highly significant observation of an annually modulating signal in radiopure sodium iodide crystals. This signal, however, is in conflict with exclusion limits from various other dark matter experiments, including XENON100. Several alternatives to the classical WIMP scenario have thus been proposed in order to reconcile these null results with DAMA/LIBRA. One of these models is magnetic inelastic dark matter (MiDM). The MiDM model is motivated by comparing certain properties of the different detector targets and how they possibly influence the expected event rates. Iodine, used in DAMA/LIBRA, is distinguished by its high atomic mass and high nuclear magnetic moment. This enhances the signal of MiDM compared to other targets, such as xenon, and opens up new parameter space for the DAMA/LIBRA signal that is not in conflict with other null results.

The exclusion limit (at 90% confidence level, CL) on MiDM interactions from of XENON100 for a dark matter mass of m=123GeV/c2. Also shown are the 68% and 95% (green) CL regions of the MiDM best fit to the DAMA/LIBRA modulation signal. The limit from COUPP data is shown as well.

In the framework of MiDM the dark matter particle is expected to scatter inelastically off the nucleus, thereby gets excited, and de-excites after a lifetime of the order of order μs with the emission of a photon with an energy of δ~100 keV. Given the mean velocity of the dark matter particle, it travels a distance of O(m) before it de-excites. Furthermore it is assumed that the dark matter particle has a non-zero magnetic moment, μχ. The combination of a low-energy nuclear recoil followed by  an electronic recoil from the de-excitation creates a unique delayed coincidence signature which has been searched for the first time using the XENON100 science run II dataset with a total exposure of 10.8 ton × days. No MiDM candidate event has been found, thus we calculate an upper limit on the interaction strength. The Figure shows the resulting limit for a dark matter mass of 123 GeV/c2 which completely excludes the DAMA/LIBRA modulation signal as being due to MiDM.The sensitivity of this type of analysis will be greatly improved for current ton-scale (e.g., XENON1T) and future multi-ton dual-phase LXe TPCs (e.g., XENONnT, LZ and DARWIN). This is not only due to the increased target mass, but also thanks to the higher probability of detecting the de-excitation inside the larger active volume.

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.


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.


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.