Tag Archives: Double Electron Capture

Talk at Lepton Photon 2019

A talk on the measurement of the double electron capture half-life of xenon-124 with the XENON1T experiment was given at the Lepton Photon 2019 conference in Toronto in August 2019. Ethan Brown from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute presented this exciting result, demonstrating the power of the ultra-low background in XENON1T. This yielded the measurement of the longest process ever directly observed at 1.8×10^22 years, a trillion times longer than the age of the Universe.

Some of the dark matter search results were also presented in this talk, advertising the incredible success of the XENON program and the science reach of the XENON1T experiment in rare event detection.

XENON at EPS-HEP2019

XENON was on the agenda at the European Physical Society Conference on High Energy Physics 2019 (EPS-HEP2019), which was held in Ghent, Belgium in the middle of July. The talk, presented by Adam Brown from the University of Zurich group, concentrated on results from XENON1T and also provided an overview of the work which is well underway to build the next generation detector, XENONnT.

Among results shown were our searches for elastic WIMP scattering and the recently published observation of double electron capture in 124Xe. The slides can be downloaded here. While the XENONnT upgrade currently in progress at Gran Sasso features many improvements of the XENON1T detector, Adam summarized four major improvements in one colorful slide.

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.

 

More than dark matter – XENON1T at Neutrino 2018

XENON1T may have been designed to search for dark matter, but it turns out that we can do a lot more with it. As the amount of xenon increases and backgrounds go down, the experiment starts to check all the boxes for a neutrino detector and becomes sensitive to rare physics processes, such as double $\beta$-decays. Two XENON collaboration posters at Neutrino 2018 in the beginning of June showcased the prospects for the detection of two such decays.

Chiara Capelli’s poster on neutrinoless double beta decay presented at Neutrino 2018

First, there is neutrinoless double $\beta$ -decay of the xenon isotope Xe-136. Here, two neutrons in the atomic nucleus are simultaneously converted into two protons. In order to conserve the total charge that increased by +2 with the protons two electrons with the charge -2 have to be emitted. In the standard model one would also need two anti-electron neutrinos to conserve lepton number. But this process goes beyond the standard model of particle physics. Its detection would imply that neutrinos are their own anti-particles and the violation of lepton number could be the key to understanding why the universe is dominated by matter compared to anti-matter today. Chiara Capelli, a PhD student from the Zürich XENON group, presented a poster where she checked the sensitivity of current and future xenon detectors for neutrinoless double $\beta$ -decay. In the years to come these detectors will complement existing experiments.

Poster on double electron capture presented at Neutrino 2018 by Alexander Fieguth and Christian Wittweg

A second poster by Alexander Fieguth and Christian Wittweg from the Münster group outlined an ongoing search for the double electron capture of Xe-124. This decay is the other way round: Two neutrons are made from protons at the same time. The necessary electrons for charge conservation are taken right from the electronic shell of the xenon atom itself. Two electron neutrinos are emitted to conserve lepton number. Although the neutrinoless case is also thinkable, the standard model decay with two neutrinos is exciting in itself. It is predicted but has not been detected so far. It t would be the longest-lived nuclear decay process ever observed directly. As XENON1T has the largest mass of Xe-124 in an experiment to date – about 1.5 kg due to the rarity of Xe-124 in natural xenon – it will be the most sensitive detector to search for this double electron capture process.

All in all, the future looks bright for large xenon detectors in neutrino physics and there are a bunch of exciting publications to look forward to.

 

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 Two-Neutrino Double Electron Capture of Xenon-124 with XENON100

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 + 2e124Te* + 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.

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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.