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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!

 

Constraining the spin-dependent WIMP-nucleon interaction with XENON1T

Since we don’t know how dark matter interacts with more familiar particles, we have to break up our search for weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) in terms of their possible interactions with xenon nuclei. While many complex interactions are possible, we generally start with two simple cases: WIMP-nucleus interactions that don’t depend on the nuclear spin, and those that do. XENON1T set a world-leading constraint on the former, “spin-independent” interaction in 2018. Today, we released our first results constraining the latter, “spin-dependent” interaction. The results are shown in the following figure:

The spin-dependent WIMP-nucleon interaction contains a range of possible cases, so experiments typically consider two extreme ones: the case where WIMPs only scatter off protons, and the case where they only scatter off neutrons. Most of the spin in xenon is carried by neutrons, so xenon experiments are better at constraining the neutron-only case. These results set the most stringent limit on this case, using the same data and procedure as the spin-independent result. We also tried out a new method of combining our constraints with complementary searches at particle accelerators, following the example of PICO-60. An open-access pre-print version of the paper is available on the arXiv.

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.

Latest XENON1T results at ICHEP2018 in Seoul

The XXXIX International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP2018) was taking place from July 4 – 11, 2018 in Seoul, Korea. After a warm welcome in this modern and traditional metropolis with over 10 million citizens, I was invited to present the recent results from XENON1T in a Dark Matter parallel session.

Here is one slide of my talk visualizing the spatial distribution of the unblinded and de-salted events.

Spatial distribution of unblinded and de-salted data.

The left plot shows the X- and Y- distribution, while the right plot indicates the radius R versus depth Z for the same set of data. The enlarged fiducial volume of 1.3 tons with respect to the first result, is highlighted by the pink line. For the analysis, a core volume (green line) was defined to distinguish WIMP-like events over neutron-like background events. The different events are visualized by pie charts, where the color code resembles the relative probability from each background component assigned by the best-fit. The larger a pie is, the more “WIMPy” it is. As you can see, only a few “WIMPy” events were found that are comparable to the background model expectations. From this, we derived the most stringent limits on spin-independent WIMP-nucleon cross sections.

At the end of my talk,  I also reported on the status of XENONnT, which will feature a 10x higher sensitivity than XENON1T. One main task is radon mitigation, one of the dominant backgrounds, which is visualized in this slide.

Radon mitigation for XENONnT

In a first step, a careful material selection needs to be made to avoid radon emanation from the start. Then, a new high throughput radon distillation column is under development to further reduce the radon contribution. Additionally, a new custom-made radon-free magnetically-coupled piston pump was built and installed at XENON1T in June 2018. With that, the radon budget in XENON1T was reduced by almost half (45%), which is an important step for the future XENONnT experiment.

The full talk is publicly available 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.

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”.

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.