Researchers May Have Finally Detected a Dark Matter Particle

Dark matter: it’s invisible, it’s elusive, it’s controversial… and it’s everywhere — in the Universe, yes, but especially in the world of astrophysics, where researchers have been exhaustively trying to reveal its true identity for decades.

Now, scientists with the international Super Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (SuperCDMS) experiment are reporting the detection of a particle that’s thought to make up dark matter: a weakly-interacting massive particle, or WIMP. According to a press release from Texas A&M University (whose high-energy physicist Rupak Mahapatra is a principal investigator in the experiment) SuperCDMS has identified a WIMP-like signal at the 3-sigma level, which indicates a 99.8 percent chance of an actual discovery — a “concrete hint,” as it’s being called.

“In high-energy physics, a discovery is only claimed at 5-sigma or better,” Mahapatra said. “So this is certainly very exciting, but not fully convincing by the standards. We just need more data to be sure. For now, we have to live with this tantalizing hint of one of the biggest puzzles of our time.”

If this is indeed a WIMP it will be the first time such a particle has been directly observed, lending more insight into what dark matter is… or isn’t.

Notoriously elusive, WIMPs rarely interact with normal matter and therefore are difficult to detect. Scientists believe they occasionally bounce off, or scatter like billiard balls from, atomic nuclei, leaving behind a small amount of energy capable of being tracked by detectors deep underground, particle colliders such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and even instruments in space like the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) mounted on the International Space Station.

A stack of crystal germanium CDMS detectors (Fermilab)
A stack of crystal germanium CDMS detectors (Fermilab)

The CDMS experiment, located a half-mile underground at the Soudan mine in northern Minnesota and managed by the United States Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, has been searching for dark matter since 2003. The experiment uses very sophisticated detector technology and advanced analysis techniques to enable cryogenically cooled (almost absolute zero temperature at -460 degrees F) germanium and silicon targets to search for the rare recoil of dark matter particles.

This newly-announced detection actually comes from data acquired during an earlier phase of the experiment.

“This result is from data taken a few years ago using silicon detectors manufactured at Stanford that are now defunct,” Mahapatra said. “Increased interest in the low mass WIMP region motivated us to complete the analysis of the silicon-detector exposure, which is less sensitive than germanium for WIMP masses above 15 giga-electronvolts [one GeVa is equal to a billion electron volts] but more sensitive for lower masses. The analysis resulted in three events, and the estimated background is 0.7 events.”

Although Mahapatra says the result is certainly encouraging and worthy of further investigation, he cautions it should not be considered a discovery just yet.

“We are only 99.8 percent sure, and we want to be 99.9999 percent sure,” Mahapatra said. “At 3-sigma, you have a hint of something. At 4-sigma, you have evidence. At 5-sigma, you have a discovery.”

“In medicine, you can say you are curing 99.8 percent of the cases, and that’s OK. When you say you’ve made a fundamental discovery in high-energy physics, you can’t be wrong.”

– Dr. Rupak Mahapatra, SuperCDMS principal investigator, Texas A&M University

Advanced 6-inch silicon detectors developed by Mahapatra's lab at Texas A&M
Advanced 6-inch silicon detectors developed by Mahapatra’s lab at Texas A&M

The collaboration will continue to probe this WIMP sector using the SuperCDMS Soudan experiment’s operating germanium detectors and is considering using larger, more advanced 6-inch silicon detectors developed at the Texas A&M’s Department of Electrical Engineering in future experiments.

The team has detailed its results in a paper published in arXiv that eventually will appear in Physical Review Letters. Mahapatra will also announce the results today at 12 p.m. CDT in a talk at the Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.

Source: Texas A&M University

(Read more about dark matter here and here.)

Finding Out What Dark Matter Is – And Isn’t

Astronomers using NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope have been looking for evidence of suspected types of dark matter particles within faint dwarf galaxies near the Milky Way — relatively “boring” galaxies that have little activity but are known to contain large amounts of dark matter. The results?

These aren’t the particles we’re looking for.

80% of the material in the physical Universe is thought to be made of dark matter — matter that has mass and gravity but does not emit electromagnetic energy (and is thus invisible). Its gravitational effects can be seen, particularly in clouds surrounding galaxies where it is suspected to reside in large amounts. Dark matter can affect the motions of stars, galaxies and even entire clusters of galaxies… but when it all comes down to it, scientists still don’t really know exactly what dark matter is.

Possible candidates for dark matter are subatomic particles called WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles). WIMPs don’t absorb or emit light and don’t interact with other particles, but whenever they interact with each other they annihilate and emit gamma rays.

If dark matter is composed of WIMPs, and the dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way do contain large amounts of dark matter, then any gamma rays the WIMPs might emit could be detected by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope.

After all, that’s what Fermi does.

Ten such galaxies — called dwarf spheroids — were observed by Fermi’s Large-Area Telescope (LAT) over a two-year period. The international team saw no gamma rays within the range expected from annihilating WIMPs were discovered, thus narrowing down the possibilities of what dark matter is.

“In effect, the Fermi LAT analysis compresses the theoretical box where these particles can hide,” said Jennifer Siegal-Gaskins, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and a member of the Fermi LAT Collaboration.


So rather than a “failed experiment”, such non-detection means that for the first time researchers can be scientifically sure that WIMP candidates within a specific range of masses and interaction rates cannot be dark matter.

(Sometimes science is about knowing what not to look for.)

A paper detailing the team’s results appeared in the Dec. 9, 2011, issue of Physical Review Letters. Read more on the Fermi mission page here.