Gamma Rays Detected Coming From the Crab Nebula

Most people with any interest in astronomy know about the Crab Nebula. It’s a supernova remnant in the constellation Taurus, and its image is all over the place. Google “Hubble images” and it’s right there with other crowd favorites, like the Pillars of Creation.

The Crab Nebula is one of the most-studied objects in astronomy. It’s the brightest source of gamma rays in the sky, and that fact is being used to establish the function of a new telescope called the Schwarschild-Couder Telescope.

Continue reading “Gamma Rays Detected Coming From the Crab Nebula”

Gravitational Wave Detectors Might be Able to Detect Dark Matter Particles Colliding With Their Mirrors

The field of astronomy has been revolutionized thanks to the first-ever detection of gravitational waves (GWs). Since the initial detection was made in February of 2016 by scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), multiple events have been detected. These have provided insight into a phenomenon that was predicted over a century ago by Albert Einstein.

As it turns out, the infrastructure that is used to detect GWs could also help crack another astronomical mystery: Dark Matter! According to a new study by a team of Japanese researchers, laser interferometers could be used to look for Weakly-Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs), a major candidate particle in the hunt for Dark Matter.

Continue reading “Gravitational Wave Detectors Might be Able to Detect Dark Matter Particles Colliding With Their Mirrors”

Space Station-Based Experiment Might Have Found Evidence of Dark Matter Destroying Itself

Since it was first proposed in the 1960s to account for all the “missing mass” in the Universe, scientists have been trying to find evidence of dark matter. This mysterious, invisible mass theoretically accounts for 26.8% of the baryonic matter (aka. visible matter) out there. And yet, despite almost fifty years of ongoing research and exploration, scientists have not found any direct evidence of this missing mass.

However, according to two new research papers that were recently published in the journal Physical Review Letters, we may have gotten our first glimpse of dark matter thanks to an experiment aboard the International Space Station. Known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02), this a state-of-the-art particle physics detector has been recording cosmic rays since 2011 – which some theorize are produced by the annihilation of dark matter particles.

Like its predecessor (the AMS), the AMS-02 is the result of collaborative work and testing by an international team composed of 56 institutes from 16 countries. With sponsorship from the US Department of Energy (DOE) and overseen by the Johnson Space Center’s AMS Project Office, the AMS-02 was delivered to the ISS aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on May 16th, 2011.

Artist’s impression of the AMS-02 instrument. Credit: NASA/JSC

Ostensibly, the AMS-02 is designed to monitor cosmic rays to see how much in the way of antiprotons are falling to Earth. But for the sake of their research, the two science teams also been consulted the data it has been collecting to test theories about dark matter. To break it down, the WIMPs theory of dark matter states that it is made up of Weakly-Interacted Massive Particles (WIMPS), protons and antiprotons are the result of WIMPs colliding.

By monitoring the number of antiprotons that interact with the AMS-02, two science teams (who were working independently of each other) hoped to infer whether or not any of the antiprotons being detected could be caused by WIMP collisions. The difficulty in this, however, is knowing what would constitute an indication, as cosmic rays have many sources and the properties of WIMPs are not entirely defined.

To do this, the two teams developed mathematical models to predict the cosmic ray background, and thus isolate the number of antiprotons that AMS-02 would detect. They further incorporated fine-tuned estimates of the expected mass of the WIMPs, until it fit with the AMS-02 data. One team, led by Alessandro Cuoco, was made up of researchers from the Institute for Theoretical Particle Physics and Cosmology.

Using computer simulations, Cuoco and his colleagues examined the AMS-02 data based on two scenarios – one which accounted for dark matter and one which did not. As they indicate in their study, they not only concluded that the presence of antiprotons created by WIMP collisions better fit the data, but they were also able to constrain the mass of dark matter to about 80 GeV (about 85 times the mass of a single proton or antiproton).

According to supersymmetry, dark-matter particles known as WIMPs annihilate each other, creating a cascade of particles and radiation. Credit: Sky & Telescope / Gregg Dinderman.

As they state in their paper:

“[T]he very accurate recent measurement of the CR antiproton flux by the AMS-02 experiment allows [us] to achieve unprecedented sensitivity to possible DM signals, a factor ~4 stronger than the limits from gamma-ray observations of dwarf galaxies. Further, we find an intriguing indication for a DM signal in the antiproton flux, compatible with the DM interpretation of the Galactic center gamma-ray excess.”

The other team was made up of researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Nanjing University, the University of Science and Technology of China, and the National Center for Theoretical Sciences. Led by Ming-Yang Cui of Nanjing University, this team made estimates of the background parameters for cosmic rays by using prior data from previous boron-to-carbon ratio and proton measurements.

These measurements, which determine the rate at which boron decays into carbon, can be used to guage the distance that boron molecules travel through space. In this case, they were combined with proton measurements to determine background levels for cosmic rays. They incorporated this data into a Bayesian Analysis framework (i.e. a statistical model used to determine probabilities) to see how many antiprotons could be attributed to WIMP collisions.

The results, as they state it in their paper were quite favorable and produced similar mass estimates to the study led by Cuoco’s team. “Compared with the astrophysical background only hypothesis, we find that a dark matter signal is favored,” they write. “The rest mass of the dark matter particles is ?20 – 80 GeV.”


The AMS being delivered to the ISS by the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2011. Credit: NASA

What’s more, both scientific teams obtained similar estimates when it came to cross-section measurements of dark matter – i.e. the likelihood of collisions happening based on how densely dark matter is distributed. For example, Cuoco’s team obtained a cross-section estimate of 3 x 10-26 per cm³ while Cui’s team obtained an estimate that ranged from 0.2 5 × 10-26 per cm³.

The fact that two scientific teams, which were operating independently of each other, came to very similar conclusions based on the same data is highly encouraging. While it is not definitive proof of dark matter, it is certainly a step in the right direction. At best, it shows that we are getting closer to creating a detailed picture of what dark matter looks like.

And in the meantime, both teams acknowledge that further work is necessary. Cuoco and his team also suggest what further steps should be taken. “Confirmation of the signal will require a more accurate study of the systematic uncertainties,” they write, “i.e., the antiproton production cross-section, and the modeling of the effect of solar modulation.”

While scientists have attempted to find evidence of dark matter by monitoring cosmic rays in the past, the AMS-02 stands apart because of its extreme sensitivity. As of May 8th, the spectrometer has conducted measurements on 100 billion particles. As of the penning of this article, that number has increased to over 100,523,550,000!

Further Reading: PBS Nova Next, Ars Technica, Physical Review Letters, (2)

Dark Matter: Hot Or Not?

For almost a century, astronomers and cosmologists have postulated that space is filled with an invisible mass known as “dark matter”. Accounting for 27% of the mass and energy in the observable universe, the existence of this matter was intended to explain all the “missing” baryonic matter in cosmological models. Unfortunately, the concept of dark matter has solved one cosmological problem, only to create another.

If this matter does exist, what is it made of? So far, theories have ranged from saying that it is made up of cold, warm or hot matter, with the most widely-accepted theory being the Lambda Cold Dark Matter (Lambda-CDM) model. However, a new study produced by a team of European astronomer suggests that the Warm Dark Matter (WDM) model may be able to explain the latest observations made of the early Universe.

But first, some explanations are in order. The different theories on dark matter (cold, warm, hot) refer not to the temperatures of the matter itself, but the size of the particles themselves with respect to the size of a protogalaxy – an early Universe formation, from which dwarf galaxies would later form.

Diagram showing the Lambda-CBR universe, from the Big Bang to the the current era. Credit: Alex Mittelmann/Coldcreation
Diagram showing the Lambda-CBR universe, from the Big Bang to the the current era. Credit: Alex Mittelmann/Coldcreation

The size of these particles determines how fast they can travel, which determines their thermodynamic properties, and indicates how far they could have traveled – aka. their “free streaming length” (FSL) – before being slowed by cosmic expansion. Whereas hot dark matter would be made up of very light particles with high FSLs, cold dark matter is believed to be made up of massive particles that have a low FSL.

Cold dark matter has been speculated to take the form of Massive Compact Halo Objects (MACHOs) like black holes, or a class of undiscovered heavy particles – i.e. Weakly-Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs), and axions. The widely-accepted Lambda-CDM model is based in part of the theory that dark matter is “cold”.

As cosmological explanations go, it is the most simple and can account for the formation of galaxies or galaxy cluster formations. However, there remains some holes in this theory, the biggest of which is that it predicts that there should be many more small, dwarf galaxies in the early Universe than we can account for.

In short, the existence of dark matter as massive particles that have low FSL would result in small fluctuations in the density of matter in the early Universe – which would lead to large amounts of low-mass galaxies to be found as satellites of galactic halos, and with large concentrations of dark matter in their centers.

Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. The goal of the Frontier Fields is to peer back further than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and get a wealth of images of galaxies as they existed in the first several hundred million years after the Big Bang. Note that the unit of time is not linear in this illustration. Illustration Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)
Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. The goal of the Frontier Fields is to peer back further than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)

Naturally, the absence of these galaxies might lead one to speculate that we simply haven’t spotted these galaxies yet, and that IR surveys like the Two-Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) missions might find them in time.

But as the international research team – which includes astronomers from the Astronomical Observatory of Rome (INAF), the Italian Space Agency Science Data Center and the Paris Observatory – another possibility is that dark matter is neither hot nor cold, but “warm” – i.e. consisting of middle-mass particles (also undiscovered) with FSLs that are roughly the same as objects big as galaxies.

As Dr. Nicola Menci – a researcher with the INAF and the lead author of the study – told Universe Today via email:

“The Cold Dark Matter particles are characterized by low root mean square velocities, due to their large masses (usually assumed of the order of >~ 100 GeV, a hundred times the mass of a proton). Such low thermal velocities allow for the clumping of CDM even on very small scales. Conversely, lighter dark matter particles with masses of the order of keV (around 1/500 the mass of the electron) would be characterized by larger thermal velocities, inhibiting the clumping of DM on mass scales of dwarf galaxies. This would suppress the abundance of dwarf galaxies (and of satellite galaxies) and produce shallow inner density profiles in such objects, naturally matching the observations without the need for a strong feedback from stellar populations.”

In other words, they found that the WDM could better account for the early Universe as we are seeing it today. Whereas the Lambda-CDM model would result in perturbations in densities in the early Universe, the longer FSL of warm dark matter particles would smooth these perturbations out, thus resembling what we see when we look deep into the cosmos to see the Universe during the epoch of galaxy formation.

For the sake of their study, which appeared recently in the July 1st issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters, the research team relied on data obtained from the Hubble Frontier Fields (HFF) program. Taking advantage of improvements made in recent years, they were able to examine the magnitude of particularly faint and distant galaxies.

The large blue light is a lensing galaxy in the foreground, called SDP81, and the red arcs are the distorted image of a more distant galaxy. By analyzing small distortions in the red, distant galaxy, astronomers have determined that a dwarf dark galaxy, represented by the white dot in the lower left, is companion to SDP81. The image is a composite from ALMA and the Hubble. Image: Y. Hezaveh, Stanford Univ./ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)/NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope
Composite image showing the lensing galaxy SDP81. The red arcs are the distorted image of a more distant galaxy, about 12 billion light years away. Credit: Y. Hezaveh, Stanford Univ./ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)/NASA/ESA/Hubble Space Telescope

As Menci explained, this is a relatively new ability which the Hubble Space Telescope would not have been able to do a few years ago:

“Since galaxy formation is deeply affected by the nature of DM on the scale of dwarf galaxies, a powerful tool to constraint DM models is to measure the abundance of low-mass galaxies at early cosmic times (high redshifts z=6-8), the epoch of their formation. This is a challenging task since it implies finding extremely faint objects (absolute magnitudes M_UV=-12 to -13) at very large distances (12-13 billion of light years) even for the Hubble Space Telescope.

“However, the Hubble Frontier Field program exploits the gravitational lensing produced by foreground galaxy clusters to amplify the light from distant galaxies. Since the formation of dwarf galaxies is suppressed in WDM models – and the strength of the suppression is larger for lighter DM particles – the high measured abundance of high-redshift dwarf galaxies (~ 3 galaxies per cube Mpc) can provide a lower limit for the WDM particle mass, which is completely independent of the stellar properties of galaxies.”

The results they obtained provided strict constraints on dark matter and early galaxy formation, and were thus consistent with what HFF has been seeing. These results could indicate that our failure to detect dark matter so far may have been the result of looking for the wrong kind of particles. But of course, these results are just one step in a larger effort, and will require further testing and confirmation.

Artist's impression of dark matter surrounding the Milky Way. (ESO/L. Calçada)
Artist’s impression of dark matter surrounding the Milky Way. (ESO/L. Calçada)

Looking ahead, Menci and his colleagues hope to obtain further information from the HFF program, and hopes that future missions will allow them to see if their findings hold up. As already noted, these include infrared astronomy missions, which are expected to “see” more of the early Universe by looking beyond the visible spectrum.

“Our results are based on the abundance of high-redshift dwarfs measured in only two fields,” he said. “However, the HFF program aims at measuring such abundances in six independent fields. The operation of the James Webb Space Telescope in the near future – with a lensing program analogous to the HFF –  will allow us to pin down the possible mechanisms for the production of WDM particles, or to rule out WDM models as alternatives to CDM,” he said. “

For almost a century, dark matter has been a pervasive and elusive mystery, always receding away the moment we think we about to figure it out. But the  deeper we look into the known Universe (and the farther back in time) the more we are able to learn about the its evolution, and thus see if they accord with our theories.

Further Reading: The Astrophysical Journal Letters, AAS Nova

Beyond WIMPs: Exploring Alternative Theories Of Dark Matter

The standard model of cosmology tells us that only 4.9% of the Universe is composed of ordinary matter (i.e. that which we can see), while the remainder consists of 26.8% dark matter and 68.3% dark energy. As the names would suggest, we cannot see them, so their existence has had to be inferred based on theoretical models, observations of the large-scale structure of the Universe, and its apparent gravitational effects on visible matter.

Since it was first proposed, there have been no shortages of suggestions as to what Dark Matter particles look like. Not long ago, many scientists proposed that Dark Matter consists of Weakly-Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs), which are about 100 times the mass of a proton but interact like neutrinos. However, all attempts to find WIMPs using colliders experiments have come up empty. As such, scientists have been exploring the idea lately that dark matter may be composed of something else entirely. Continue reading “Beyond WIMPs: Exploring Alternative Theories Of Dark Matter”

Macro View Makes Dark Matter Look Even Stranger

We know dark matter exists. We know this because without it and dark energy, our Universe would be missing 95.4% of its mass. What’s more, scientists would be hard pressed to explain what accounts for the gravitational effects they routinely see at work in the cosmos.

For decades, scientists have sought to prove its existence by smashing protons together in the Large Hadron Collider. Unfortunately, these efforts have not provided any concrete evidence.

Hence, it might be time to rethink dark matter. And physicists David M. Jacobs, Glenn D. Starkman, and Bryan Lynn of Case Western Reserve University have a theory that does just that, even if it does sound a bit strange.

In their new study, they argue that instead of dark matter consisting of elementary particles that are invisible and do not emit or absorb light and electromagnetic radiation, it takes the form of chunks of matter that vary widely in terms of mass and size.

As it stands, there are many leading candidates for what dark matter could be, which range from Weakly-Interacting Massive Particles (aka WIMPs) to axions. These candidates are attractive, particularly WIMPs, because the existence of such particles might help confirm supersymmetry theory – which in turn could help lead to a working Theory of Everything (ToE).

According to supersymmetry, dark-matter particles known as neutralinos (which are often called WIMPs) annihilate each other, creating a cascade of particles and radiation that includes medium-energy gamma rays. If neutralinos exist, the LAT might see the gamma rays associated with their demise. Credit: Sky & Telescope / Gregg Dinderman.
According to supersymmetry, dark-matter particles known as neutralinos (aka WIMPs) annihilate each other, creating a cascade of particles and radiation. Credit: Sky & Telescope / Gregg Dinderman.

But so far, no evidence has been obtained that definitively proves the existence of either. Beyond being necessary in order for General Relativity to work, this invisible mass seems content to remain invisible to detection.

According to Jacobs, Starkman, and Lynn, this could indicate that dark matter exists within the realm of normal matter. In particular, they consider the possibility that dark matter consists of macroscopic objects – which they dub “Macros” – that can be characterized in units of grams and square centimeters respectively.

Macros are not only significantly larger than WIMPS and axions, but could potentially be assembled out of particles in the Standard Model of particle physics – such as quarks and leptons from the early universe – instead of requiring new physics to explain their existence. WIMPS and axions remain possible candidates for dark matter, but Jacobs and Starkman argue that there’s a reason to search elsewhere.

“The possibility that dark matter could be macroscopic and even emerge from the Standard Model is an old but exciting one,” Starkman told Universe Today, via email. “It is the most economical possibility, and in the face of our failure so far to find dark matter candidates in our dark matter detectors, or to make them in our accelerators, it is one that deserves our renewed attention.”

After eliminating most ordinary matter – including failed Jupiters, white dwarfs, neutron stars, stellar black holes, the black holes in centers of galaxies, and neutrinos with a lot of mass – as possible candidates, physicists turned their focus on the exotics.

Particle Collider
Ongoing experiments at the Large Hadron Collider have so far failed to produce evidence of WIMPs. Credit: CERN/LHC/GridPP

Nevertheless, matter that was somewhere in between ordinary and exotic – relatives of neutron stars or large nuclei – was left on the table, Starkman said. “We say relatives because they probably have a considerable admixture of strange quarks, which are made in accelerators and ordinarily have extremely short lives,” he said.

Although strange quarks are highly unstable, Starkman points out that neutrons are also highly unstable. But in helium, bound with stable protons, neutrons remain stable.

“That opens the possibility that stable strange nuclear matter was made in the early Universe and dark matter is nothing more than chunks of strange nuclear matter or other bound states of quarks, or of baryons, which are themselves made of quarks,” said Starkman.

Such dark matter would fit the Standard Model.

This is perhaps the most appealing aspect of the Macros theory: the notion that dark matter, which our cosmological model of the Universe depends upon, can be proven without the need for additional particles.

Still, the idea that the universe is filled with a chunky, invisible mass rather than countless invisible particles does make the universe seem a bit stranger, doesn’t it?

Further Reading: Case Western

Could This Be The Signal Of Dark Matter? Unsure Scientists Checking This Out

Sometimes a strange signal comes from the dark and it takes a while to figure out what that signal means. In this case, scientists analyzing high-energy gamma rays emanating from the galaxy’s center found an unexplained source of emission that they say is “consistent with some forms of dark matter.”

The data came courtesy of NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and was analyzed by a group of independent scientists. They found that by removing all known sources of gamma rays, they were left with gamma-ray emissions that so far, they cannot explain. More observations will be needed to characterize these emissions, they cautioned.

Scientists aren’t even sure what dark matter (which can only be detected through gravitational effects) is made of. One theoretical candidate could be something called Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs), which could produce gamma rays in ranges that Fermi could detect.

Also, the location of the radiation at the galaxy’s center is an interesting spot, since scientists believe that’s where dark matter would lurk since the insofar invisible substance would be the base of normal structures like galaxies.

“The new maps allow us to analyze the excess and test whether more conventional explanations, such as the presence of undiscovered pulsars or cosmic-ray collisions on gas clouds, can account for it,” stated Dan Hooper, an astrophysicist at Fermilab and lead author of the study.

“The signal we find cannot be explained by currently proposed alternatives and is in close agreement with the predictions of very simple dark matter models.”

The scientists suggest that if WIMPs were destroying each other, this would be “a remarkable fit” for a dark matter signal. They again caution, though, that there could be other explanations for the phenomenon.

“Dark matter in this mass range can be probed by direct detection and by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), so if this is dark matter, we’re already learning about its interactions from the lack of detection so far,” stated co-author Tracy Slatyer, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“This is a very exciting signal, and while the case is not yet closed, in the future we might well look back and say this was where we saw dark matter annihilation for the first time.”

You can read more about the research in Physical Review D or in preprint form on Arxiv.

Source: NASA

New Dark Matter Detector Draws A Blank In First Test Round

Dark Energy

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
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.
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

No Joy for Dark Matter Detector’s First 100 Days


We’re still mostly in the dark about Dark Matter, and the highly anticipated results from the XENON100 detector has perhaps shed a tad more light on the subject – by not making a detection in the first 100 days of the experiment. Researchers from the project say they have now been able to place the most stringent limits yet on the properties of dark matter.

To look for any possible hints of Dark Matter interacting with ordinary matter, the project has been looking for WIMPS — or weakly interacting massive particles – but for now, there is no new evidence for the existence of WIMPS, or Dark Matter either.

The extremely sensitive XENON100 detector is buried beneath the Gran Sasso mountain in central Italy, shielding it from cosmic radiation so it hopefully can detect WIMPS, hypothetical particles that might be heavier than atomic nuclei, and the most popular candidate for what Dark Matter might be made of. The detector consists of 62 kg of liquid xenon contained within a heavily shielded tank. If a WIMP would enter the detector, it should interact with the xenon nuclei to generate light and electric signals – which would be a kind of “You Have Won!” indicator.

Dark Matter is thought to make up more than 80% of all mass in the universe, but the nature of it is still unknown. Scientists believe that it is made up of exotic particles unlike the normal (baryonic) matter, which we, the Earth, Sun and stars are made of, and it is invisible so it has only been inferred from its gravitational effects.

The XENON detector ran from January to June 2010 for its first run, and in their paper on arxiv, the team revealed they found three candidate events that might be due to Dark Matter. But two of these were expected to appear anyway because of background noise, the team said, so their results are effectively negative.

Does this rule out the existence of WIMPS? Not necessarily – the team will keep working on their search. Plus, results from a preliminary analysis from11.2 days worth of data, taken during the experiment’s commissioning phase in October and November 2009, already set new upper limits on the interaction rate of WIMPs – the world’s best for WIMP masses below about 80 times the mass of a proton.

And the XENON100 team was optimistic. “These new results reveal the highest sensitivity reported as yet by any dark matter experiment, while placing the strongest constraints on new physics models for particles of dark matter,” the team said in a statement.

Read the team’s paper.

More info on XENON100

Sources: EurekAlert, physicsworld

What are WIMPs?

WIMPs are Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, hypothetical particles which may be the main (or only) component of Dark Matter, a form of matter which emits and absorbs no light and which comprises approx 75% of all mass in the observable universe.

The ‘weakly’ is a bit of a pun; WIMPs would interact with themselves and with other forms of mass only through the weak force (and gravity); get it? More plays on words: WIMP, the word, was created after the term MACHO (Massive Astrophysical Compact Halo Object) entered the scientific literature.

WIMPs are massive particles because they are not light; they would have masses considerably greater than the mass of the proton (for example). Being massive, WIMPs would likely be cold; in astrophysics ‘cold’ doesn’t mean ‘below zero’, it means the average speed of the particles is well below c. Neutrinos are weakly interacting particles, but they are not massive, so they cannot be WIMPs (besides, neutrinos aren’t hypothetical, and they’re hot, very hot … they travel at speeds just a teensy bit below c).

Or maybe they are … if there is a kind of neutrino which is really, really massive (a TeV say) then it would certainly be a WIMP! However, the latest results from WMAP seem to rule out this kind of WIMP-as-neutrino.

There are quite a few experiments – active or planned – looking for WIMPs; some Universe Today stories on them are New Proposal to Search for Dark Matter, Searching for Dark Matter Particles Here on Earth, Digging for Dark Matter, the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) Detector, and A Prototype Detector for Dark Matter in the Milky Way. It may turn out that WIMPs remain entirely hypothetical (the particles which comprise Dark Matter may not be WIMPs, for example) or only a minor component of Dark Matter. In the latter case they’d follow MACHOs not only because they were named at a later time … MACHOs have been detected in the Milky Way halo, but there aren’t anywhere near enough of them to account for the rotation curve of our galaxy.

This section of a review by Princeton University’s Dave Spergel is rather old but still one of the best concise technical descriptions; and this Particle Data Group review (PDF file) lists WIMP searches (though it’s a bit dated). NASA’s Imagine the Universe! has a page on Possibilities for Dark Matter that includes a simple overview of WIMPs.

Want to hear, rather than read, more? Check out the Astronomy Cast episode The Search for Dark Matter!

Source: NASA