New Dark Matter Detector Draws A Blank In First Test Round

We keep saying dark matter is so very hard to find. Astronomers say they can see its effects — such as gravitational lensing, or an amazing bendy feat of light that takes place when a massive galaxy brings forward light from other galaxies behind it. But defining what the heck that matter is, is proving elusive. And considering it makes up most of the universe’s matter, it would be great to know what dark matter looks like.

A new experiment — billed as the most sensitive dark matter detector in the world — spent three months searching for evidence of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), which may be the basis of dark matter. So far, nothing, but researchers emphasized they have only just started work.

“Now that we understand the instrument and its backgrounds, we will continue to take data, testing for more and more elusive candidates for dark matter,” stated physicist Dan McKinsey of Yale University, who is one of the collaborators on the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) detector.

A view of the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) dark matter detector. Shown are photomultiplier tubes that can ferret out single photons of light. Signals from these photons told physicists that they had not yet found Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) Credit: Matthew Kapust / South Dakota Science and Technology Authority

LUX operates a mile (1.6 kilometers) beneath the Earth in the state-owned Sanford Underground Research Facility, which is located in South Dakota. The underground location is perfect for this kind of work because there is little interference from cosmic ray particles.

“At the heart of the experiment is a six-foot-tall titanium tank filled with almost a third of a ton of liquid xenon, cooled to minus 150 degrees Fahrenheit. If a WIMP strikes a xenon atom it recoils from other xenon atoms and emits photons (light) and electrons. The electrons are drawn upward by an electrical field and interact with a thin layer of xenon gas at the top of the tank, releasing more photons,” stated the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which leads operations at Sanford.

“Light detectors in the top and bottom of the tank are each capable of detecting a single photon, so the locations of the two photon signals – one at the collision point, the other at the top of the tank – can be pinpointed to within a few millimeters. The energy of the interaction can be precisely measured from the brightness of the signals.”

The densest regions of the dark matter cosmic web host massive clusters of galaxies. Credit: Van Waerbeke, Heymans, and CFHTLens collaboration.

LUX’s sensitivity for low-mass WIMPs is more than 20 times better than other detectors. That said, the detector was unable to confirm possible hints of WIMPs found in other experiments.

“Three candidate low-mass WIMP events recently reported in ultra-cold silicon detectors would have produced more than 1,600 events in LUX’s much larger detector, or one every 80 minutes in the recent run,” the laboratory added.

Don’t touch that dial yet, however. LUX plans to do more searching in the next two years. Also, the Sanford Lab is proposing an even more sensitive LUX-ZEPLIN experiment that would be 1,000 times more sensitive than LUX. No word yet on when LUX-ZEPLIN will get off the ground, however.

Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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