The XENON experiment is a 3500kg liquid xenon detector to search for the elusive Dark Matter. Have a look at the description of our detection principle, our recent publications, some pictures, or materials for press contacts. Feel free to contact us with your questions.
Interactions of particles with liquid xenon are detected by the observation of scintillation light. To observe even the smallest particle recoil-energies, the “eyes” of the experiment have to be able to detect single photons. In XENON1T, this is realized by photomultiplier tubes (PMTs) which convert the incoming photons to a measurable charge signal. In total 248 PMTs are used in the experiment, split in two arrays of 127 PMTs at the top and 121 at the bottom of the time projection chamber. It is of uttermost importance for the performance of XENON1T that each PMTs works within the specifications and has a stable performance during the dark matter search campaign.
Each PMT was cooled down and tested typically three times at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kernphysik in Heidelberg (MPIK). In this way the materials are exposed to thermal stress before the final assembly. This ensures that only PMTs which reach the high requirements for our dark matter search are built in the detector. In addition, a selection of PMTs were operated in liquid xenon at the Universtiy of Zurich (UZH) to test not only their long term stability but also to check for leaks by an analysis of PMT afterpulsing. The assembly of the PMT arrays started in the clean room at MPIK. The arrays were designed at UCLA and are composed of copper plates for stability and Teflon for an optimized reflectivity of ultraviolet photons. Before the assembly of all components, all materials have been individually treated with dedicated cleaning procedures to reduce radioactive contaminations at the surfaces.
The distribution of PMTs in the arrays were optimized to achieve a maximal light collection and, hence, a low energy threshold. It is worth mentioning that the bottom array has an exceptional large average quantum efficiency of 36.7 %. Before installation, the PMTs were equipped with a custom-made low-radioactive base provided by UZH. The picture below shows the PMTs including its bases and cables during the installation in the clean room.
The assembly of all PMTs was accomplished within two weeks and the arrays were shipped from Heidelberg to Gran Sasso in custom-built transport boxes to ensure safe passage. Furthermore, these boxes enable a light tight environment to be able to test each signal of the PMT in its final position and configuration. All tubes showed satisfactory signals in the oscilloscope upon arrival to LNGS. The picture below shows the complete assembled bottom (left) and top (right) arrays. On top, the picture shows the top array from the side which will be facing the liquid xenon target.
The XENON1T TPC is the largest of its kind, being about 1 m high and 1 m in diameter. It is to house more than 2 tons of xenon in liquid form, and consists of two photomultiplier (PMT) arrays, a field cage, Teflon reflectors, top and bottom support rings and electrode grids. The field cage is made of Teflon pillars that support 74 copper field shaping rings, connected via two resistor chains. The field shaping rings, optimised via detailed electrostatic field simulations, have rounded edges and are to ensure a highly uniform drift field for electrons over the whole volume of the TPC, designed to be 1 kV/cm. The inner surfaces of the Teflon reflectors are shiny, polished with a special diamond tool, to maximally reflect the 178 nm scintillation photons, and thus to optimise the overall light yield of the dark matter detector.
During a few sunny weeks in September 2015, a major part of the TPC, including the two support rings, the field cage, the reflectors and the bottom PMT array (without PMTs, consisting of a large copper and two Teflon structures), was carefully assembled in a high bay laboratory on Campus Irchel at the University of Zurich. The main goals were to rehearse the assembly procedure before the final installation work under clean room conditions, to discover and fix any potential small imperfections, and to slowly cool down the entire structure to -100 C, the planned operational temperature of the detector.
The picture shows members of the XENON team at the University of Zurich, immersed in the assembly work. The copper field shaping rings, a few connecting resistors, the Teflon pillars, the top and bottom support rings as well as the empty PMT array can be seen. Because the final top support ring, made out of stainless steel, was not yet available at this time, an aluminium mock up version was used.
The tests proceeded smoothly, apart from a minor design issue with the reflectors, that was carefully fixed by the Zurich workshop team within a few days. After all parts were assembled, and the reflectors, which are long, interlocking Teflon panels, were inserted into their final positions, the TPC was lifted with a crane with the help of a support structure attached to the top aluminium ring, as seen in the second picture. It was first moved to the side, then slowly immersed into a large, empty stainless steel dewar that could easily house the entire TPC.
Now the cold tests could finally start. The temperature inside the dewar was lowered over more than 14 hours to -100 C, and kept stable within 2%. Besides the slow rate of cooling down, a uniform temperature across the TPC was essential to prevent any non-uniform contractions of materials. This was achieved with cold nitrogen gas, four fans and two heaters placed on the bottom of the dewar, below a heavy aluminium support plate. It was monitored with 10 sensors, placed at various heights: 4 on the Teflon pillars, 4 in the middle of the TPC, inside the nitrogen gas, and 2 on the bottom of the dewar. As expected, the whole TPC had contracted by about 1.4% once it reached the final, low temperature. After a slow warm up period to room temperature, the initial dimensions were regained, and no structural damages could be observed.
On a foggy, cold morning at the end of September, the whole structure was disassembled again. The components parted in various directions: the PMT array to MPIK Heidelberg where the PMTs are to be installed, the Teflon structures to Münster where they will be cleaned in a dedicated facility, and the copper rings directly to the Gran Sasso laboratory. All parts will be thoroughly cleaned using dedicated recipes for each type of material, to avoid radioactive impurities on, or just below the surfaces, making it into the detector. They will finally come together in a clean room above ground at Gran Sasso, to be assembled into what will soon become the core of the XENON1T experiment.
E. Aprile et al. (XENON Collaboration), Exclusion of Leptophilic Dark Matter Models using XENON100 Electronic Recoil Data, Science 2015 vol. 349 no. 6250 pp. 851, and Search for Event Rate Modulation in XENON100 Electronic Recoil Data, Physical Review Letters 115, 091302 (2015) and arxiv.1507.07748
The annual modulation signature
Although we believe that Dark Matter is Out There, we are completely oblivious to the impact of Dark Matter on our daily lives. On the human scale Dark Matter is nearly impossible to detect, the faintest whisper of the galaxy. The vast majority of the time Dark Matter particles pass right through us as if we don’t exist.
It is hypothesized, however, that we may be able to tune our ears to hear the unique song of Dark Matter here on Earth. Doing so successfully would constitute direct proof that Dark Matter exists.
Rather than the swelling symphony that you might expect from the most abundant matter in the Universe, this song will be a random melody, plucked out in individual notes. The tempo of these notes, that is the rate of events in a Dark Matter detector, should vary over the course of one year.
Evidence suggests that both the Sun and the Earth are enveloped by the Dark Matter halo of the Milky Way. As the Earth’s velocity relative to the Sun varies over its one-year orbit, so does it’s velocity relative to the Dark Matter. This should result in the so-called “WIMP wind” that blows harder in June, and softer in December.
This variation itself becomes the song of Dark Matter, repeating every year like clockwork – the annual modulation signature.
XENON100 was the first instrument using liquified xenon that was able to search for such a signature. The liquid xenon that fills the detector emits light when particles interact with it. We take pictures of the light with extremely sensitive devices, and use them to identify the energy and type of interaction. We took data with this detector from February 2011 to March 2012, long enough to observe more than one full cycle of the Dark Matter annual modulation.
What will Dark Matter events look like?
In XENON100, more than one type of event is identifiable. The type depends on whether Dark Matter interacts with the nuclei of the atoms in the detector, or with the electrons surrounding these nuclei. Typically, we assume the interactions of Dark Matter are with the nuclei.
For our newest study, we considered the possibility that Dark Matter instead interacts with the electrons in XENON100, and looked for an annual modulation signature.
One challenge of such a study is that many things can potentially make the rate of events in the detector vary in time, for example random noise in the instrument itself or the decay of radioactive particles. We examined all these possibilities carefully, and determined to what extent they might affect the rate of events in the detector.
The results of our study show some evidence for a rate of events varying periodically over the course of roughly one year, or perhaps longer. This slight change in rate – about half of the average rate in the detector, which is itself very small – can not yet be explained. There’s a one in a thousand chance that it is just a statistical fluke.
Before you go extolling the news from the rooftops, however, take note that our observation is not what we would naively expect from Dark Matter.
Our data shows that the rate of multiple-scatter events (interactions with more than one atom) varies almost as much as that of single-scatter events. Since Dark Matter interacts extremely rarely, we would never expect it to cause multiple-scatter events. In addition, the date of the peak rate in our detector does not match up with what we expect due to the motion of the Earth through the Dark Matter halo.
New perspective on an old claim of Dark Matter discovery
The DAMA/LIBRA collaboration has observed an annual modulation signal in their NaI detectors for more than a decade. They claim that it can be interpreted as a direct detection of Dark Matter. Meanwhile, many experiments that are more sensitive than DAMA/LIBRA (including XENON100) have found no comparable evidence of Dark Matter interacting with atomic nuclei.
However, given the fact that the NaI detectors are unable to differentiate between different types of events, one way to resolve this tension between the different experiments is if the interactions in DAMA/LIBRA are with the electrons.
Although our study shows that XENON100 sees some hint of a signal varying over long periods, the size of that signal is still much smaller than what we would expect to see if we were, in fact, detecting the same signal as DAMA/LIBRA. Thus, we find that it is extremely unlikely to be the case that DAMA/LIBRA observes an annual modulation due to interactions with electrons. The data from XENON100 exclude this possibility with a statistical significance of 4.8σ, corresponding to a probability of about one in a million.
Our study answers an important question about how to interpret the DAMA/LIBRA annual modulation signal, but raises many more. Why haven’t we discovered the annual modulation of Dark Matter? What causes the annual modulation in DAMA/LIBRA? What causes the slight variation of rate in XENON100?
More data has since been taken by XENON100 that will hopefully allow the last question to be answered. As to the nature of Dark Matter, well, we will have to keep listening.
The Gran Sasso laboratory that hosts the XENON1T experiment is the largest underground laboratory in the world. More than a dozen different experiments make use of the low background from cosmic radiation that you get when you go more than a mile deep underground. You can virtually walk around the lab using the Street View from Google Maps.
The lab also offers public tours, just get in touch with them directly if you want to walk around in person.
Knowing the exact level of the interface between the liquid and the gaseous phase in the XENON1T TPC is crucial for the operation of the detector, and very important to understand its response. Reason for this is the so-called S2 signal, which is the second signal one measures after an event happens in the detector. It originates from electrons, which are produced when a particle scatters off the xenon, and which rise up in the electric field of the TPC until they reach the liquid-gas interface. There, an even stronger electric field is extracting them from the liquid and accelerates them towards the top of the detector. The field is strong enough that, while drifting through the xenon gas, the electrons hit xenon atoms on their way, exciting each of them to emit an ultraviolet photon. A single electron will thus produce an amplified signal of up to 300 photons, of which about 20 will be ultimately detected.
The proportional scintillation light produced by this electron avalanche is detected by the top PMT array of the detector. The size of the resulting signal is proportional to the number of electrons produced. The meshes which apply the electric fields in the detector are at fixed positions. Hence, a lower or higher level of the liquid-gas interface has direct influence on the drift length of the extracted electrons in the gas and thus a direct influence on the size of the S2 signal. The size of the S2 signal in turn is a very important parameter which is used in many different ways in the data analysis. So a very good understanding is required of where the liquid level is.
To get that information, we have designed special instruments to measure the liquid level inside the TPC. Those levelmeters work capacitively, which means that they are basically hollow capacitors, which change their capacitance proportional to the level they are immersed in liquid xenon. In normal operation mode, the system is in a thermal equilibrium, so there are no changes in the liquid level. The TPC is designed in a way that one can manually adjust the liquid-gas interface to a higher or lower level. This dynamic range of the XENON1T TPC is about 5mm. Hence the levelmeters are of similar height.
The capacitance of a capacitor increases with the area of its electrodes. To achieve the highest possible capacitance change from the lower end of the capacitor to its upper end, a detailed simulation has been performed at the University of Mainz in Germany for different shapes and sizes of capacitors. It turned out that a triple-plate capacitor of 61mm length and 10mm height is the best compromise of having a large capacitance change per unit height, while still being small enough to enable a point-like measurement of the level in the TPC. The three plates of the capacitor are 0.5mm thick and are separated 1mm from each other. To prevent the capacitors from the large electric fields surrounding them, they are shielded by a copper cage. In addition, since the levelmeters are very close to the detector, they are made out of high purity copper to prevent introducing additional radioactive backgrounds. The levelmeters change their capacitance by ~1pF per mm that is filled with liquid xenon. This translates to a resolution of an amazing ~3µm to measure the liquid xenon level! Four of those devices are distributed around the TPC. This gives us the possibility to level the detector in µm precision. The capacitor signals are read out via a pair of 15m long coax cables and an electronic circuit that is connected to the slow control system of XENON1T.
Another use case for levelmeters is the monitoring of the filling process of the cryostat. In order to do this, two 1.4m long double-walled stainless steel cylindrical capacitors are located at the outside of the TPC, covering its full height. As for the short levelmeters, the long ones also work in a way that their capacitance is changing according to how high the liquid xenon rose inside them. Here, the compromise between having a large capacitance change per height value versus very small space requirements had to be made. The diameter of the outer conductor was designed to be 6mm, for the inner conductor to be 3mm. This leads to a capacitance change of 0.10 pF/mm and enables a resolution of ~30µm for measuring the absolut level of liquid xenon in the TPC.
The XENON1T levelmeters are well designed sensors by its own and have been developed over more than one year. After production in June 2015, they are shipped to LNGS, where they will do their job over the next years during the run-time of the XENON1T detector.
In order to keep the liquid xenon inside XENON1T at a temperature of almost -100°C, the TPC is installed inside a double-wall cryostat. In fact, this cryostat consists of two independent shells (the “inner” and the “outer” cryostat), and the space in between is evacuated to block convective heat transfer between them. Both shells are made from stainless steel, carefully selected for its low intrinsic radioactive contaminations. The inner cryostat was already closed in Fall 2014, and is kept closed since then in order to keep its inner surface, and the cables and pipes which are already installed inside as clean as possible. It has now been wrapped in superinsulation (the shiny foil on the picture) which is used to block radiative heat transfer. Now, on February 24, 2015, the outer cryostat has been closed for the first time and the insulation vacuum in between is being pumped since then. This is the next step towards filling the first liquid xenon into the XENON1T cryostat.
The ICARUS experiment just left Hall B at the Gran Sasso underground laboratory in Italy for its journey to CERN in Switzerland. We had designed the XENON1T water tank a bit smaller than originally planned to allow ICARUS to move past. Everything went smoothly, but it was a tight fit…
We wish our colleagues all the best with the future of their experiment. Read the full story of this move at interactions.org.
The cryostat of the XENON1T experiment is surrounded by an huge and fascinating detector: the Muon Veto. In order to understand what it is, let us remember why we are building an experiment underground. Over our heads, a lot of particles are constantly produced by primary cosmic rays. Secondary particles can provide contamination for low background experiments, such as XENON1T. For this reason, one has to build such experiments in a place where most of these particles cannot penetrate. Only high-energy particles, like muons, and weakly interacting particles, like dark matter, can cross many kilometres of rock. Even though muons can be distinguished from dark matter due to their electric charge, they can also produce neutrons, which mimic dark matter signals. It is therefore very important to properly identify muons and reject their associated signals. This is the main task of the Muon Veto system.
The Muon Veto exploits the peculiarity of very fast muons to induce photons (sometimes thousands of them!) when crossing a layer of water. It is composed by a big cylindrical water tank, about 10m high and 9.6m diameter. Roughly 4m of water, surrounding the inner detector, provide an additional passive shield from the environmental radioactivity, reaching a factor 100 of background suppression. The water tank is equipped with 84 water proof Photo-Multiplier-Tubes (PMTs), which behave like super-sensitive single-pixel cameras. Before mounting the PMTs, we have subjected them to high pressure and water tests, in order to simulate the water tank conditions. Moreover, we have measured their most important properties and classified in different setups. The inner part of the water tank is covered by a reflective foil, which with 99% reflectivity looks like a perfect mirror. Its purpose is to keep the photons inside the tank until they reach the PMTs. A quick estimate can give us an idea about the importance of the foil: in absence of the reflective foil, a single photon would be collected only in 0.001% of the cases.
Last September 2013, the Muon Veto group, constituted by Bologna, LNGS-Torino and Mainz colleagues, had put the first stone towards the assembly of the XENON1T experiment. The water tank, constructed from the top, was at that time only few meters high. The inner part of the roof was then easy to reach and allowed us to attach the reflective foil in few days. It was a very delicate job.
In the following months the construction of other parts of XENON1T developed very fast (see previous blog entries) and after one year of intermittent work, this October 2014 the Muon Veto group travelled to the water tank and meet all together. We continued carefully attaching the reflective foil, cladding the complete, huge water tank from the inside.
The next important step was to mount the PMTs to the roof and wall of the water tank. In order to allow the path from the farthest PMTs to the electronic room outside the tank, one had to deal with 30m of high voltage and signal cables for each PMT. Mounting the PMT was the most sensitive step, because these detectors are very delicate and any mistake could result in permanent damage. For this reason, we used appropriate white Mickey Mouse gloves and a lot of caution. The high accuracy of these detectors can be well understood by considering that a PMT can perfectly distinguish a single photon, while the threshold for the human eyes is around hundred photons.
Later on, the two independent PMT calibration systems were mounted. They allow us to obtain, when necessary, a response of the PMTs even when the water tank is closed. The first calibration system consists in a set of optical fibers with one end connected to a PMT and the other end to a blue LED pulser, outside the water tank. The optical fibers are able to transmit all the incoming light via total internal reflection. In fact, when you illuminate one side, light travels through the 30m of fiber and gets out entirely from the other side, looking like some peculiar Christmas lights. The second calibration system is made of four diffuser balls submerged in the water, which can illuminate all the 84 PMTs simultaneously. Thanks to a wise choice of materials, this handmade system is capable of transmitting light homogeneously in all directions. For calibration purposes, it is useful that all PMTs receive the same amount of light. The diffuser ball looks like a very uniform blue bulb when it is turned on in a dark room.
After one month of hard work now, in November 2014, we completed the main part of the Muon Veto installation. All this work has been concluded successfully thanks to a strongly motivated team that has seen years of preparation finally getting realized.
Building a detector which uses thousands of kilograms of xenon in liquid phase poses many serious technological challenges. Details that may appear trivial at small scales become a challenge when we go towards high masses. The storage of xenon is maybe the most evident example. One option is to keep xenon in several standard gas bottles, another option is to have a very large tank to store it. Both solutions imply keeping xenon in gaseous phase. To get an idea of the dimensions of the problem, we have to think that storing about 4000 kg of xenon at standard pressure would require a volume as big as the XENON1T water tank! Moreover, we would like to have something more than a simple storage vessel, namely a “bottle”, with its own cooling system, capable of keeping xenon already in liquid phase. We also wanted to have liquid xenon continuously purified during its storage, so that we could have ultra pure xenon available at any time for the detector. Finally we wanted to use this storage also as an efficient recovery system: for any reason, due to a maintenance or even an emergency, we wanted to be able to transfer xenon from the detector into this storage system in few hours. Can all these requirements be met by a single smart system? Yes, and we have built such a system for XENON1T. We call it ReStoX (Recovery and Storage of Xenon) and it has been successfully installed in the LNGS Laboratory on August 13th, 2014. It’s a beautiful and shiny double insulated stainless steel sphere, capable of containing up to 7 tons of xenon. Seven? Yes, because ReStoX is ready to store much more than what XENON1T will require for the first science phase expected to last a couple of years starting in 2015.
The system was conceived by a team of experts from Columbia University and Subatech Laboratory, and initially designed in collaboration with Air Liquide. It was patented by them in 2012. The design was later changed in many important details and much improved, thanks to the contributions of Karl Giboni and Jean-Marie Disdier. The construction was assigned to the Italian company Costruzioni Generali (CG), located near Milano, which not only built it in record time (about half a year from the design to the installation) but also improved it with technological solutions to make it the biggest and most reliable liquid xenon storage ever conceived. ReStoX exists thanks to the main contribution of Columbia University and with contributions of Subatech Laboratory and Mainz University.
ReStoX has been built with two redundant and complementary cooling systems, both of them based on liquid nitrogen, so that ReStoX is able to work even in case of black-out. One is based on a circuit surrounding the inner sphere, so powerful to be even capable of freezing xenon in a short time, and another one is internal, capable of regulating the xenon pressure with high precision.
And what if we run out of liquid nitrogen? No problem. ReStoX is very strong and with its 3.4 cm thick inner sphere is capable of keeping xenon safely even in gaseous phase if necessary, withstanding about 70 bar of pressure. Not bad for a “bottle”, isn’t it?
The XENON1T detector sits in the center of a large water tank. All the signal and high voltage cables for the photosensors in the time projection chamber are guided by a pipe that goes from outside where the computers are located—through the tank to the detector. This stainless steel pipe was produced by ALCA, a company located near Vicenza in Italy.
More than 900 cables, each 10 meter long, had to be inserted into a 10 centimeter diameter pipe. Before the installation the cables were prepared at the University of Zurich. We developed two types of connector made out of PTFE and copper; one for the high voltage cables, one for the signal cables. These connectors satisfy the stringent requirement on radioactive cleanliness. Each holds 24 cables into one bunch. These connectors were mounted on both sides such that they can be easily connected to the detector itself inside the water tank and to other cables, leading to the electronics outside of the water tank. After bunching the cables they had to be cleaned and packed carefully to protect them from pollution during the transportation to ALCA.
At ALCA, each bunch was unpacked and one after the other inserted into the pipe for which we fixed each to a steal pulling wire. After all bunches were successfully inserted, both ends of the pipe were closed with caps, because the pipe had to be pumped in order to remove substances like water or alcohol that remained in the cable bunches from the cleaning process.