Author Archives: Luke Goetzke

About Luke Goetzke

Postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University in New York.

Search for Event Rate Modulation in XENON100 Electronic Recoil Data

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.

 

Illustration of the expected “WIMP wind” due to the motion of the Sun relative to the DM halo of the Milky Way. Figure from arXiv:1209.3339

Illustration of the expected “WIMP wind” due to the motion of the Sun relative to the DM halo of the Milky Way. Figure from arXiv:1209.3339

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.

Best-fit amplitude and phase of annual modulation signal in XENON100 from a profile likelihood study. Expected signal from DAMA/LIBRA and expected phase from the standard Dark Matter halo overlaid for comparison.

Best-fit amplitude and phase of annual modulation signal in XENON100 from a profile likelihood study. Expected signal from DAMA/LIBRA and expected phase from the standard Dark Matter halo overlaid for comparison.

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.

Measuring Kr Contamination with an Atom Trap

 

Prof. Elena Aprile and Graduate Student Luke Goetzke work on the ATTA system at Columbia University

Prof. Elena Aprile and Graduate Student Luke Goetzke work on the ATTA system at Columbia University

The Krypton Problem

One of the many advantages of using xenon as a dark matter target is that xenon has no naturally occurring long-lived radioactive isotopes. However, when xenon is distilled from air, about 1 krypton atom per billion xenon atoms is also gathered. A very small fraction of these krypton atoms, only one in one hundred billion, are the radioactive isotope 85-Kr.

The decay of 85-Kr releases an electron which can then scatter in the xenon detector. These electronic recoil events can potentially obscure even rarer signals from interactions with dark matter. Thus, for dark matter detectors using liquid xenon, the krypton needs to be removed. This is done by passing the xenon through a cryogenic distillation column specifically designed for removing krypton.

After going through the krypton column, the xenon is very clean. For XENON100, there are only ~10 krypton atoms per trillion xenon atoms. Finding one of those krypton atoms is like picking out one single star from the entire Milky Way galaxy. XENON1T has 10 times even less krypton in the xenon.

Measuring the Krypton Contamination

Measuring such a tiny amount of krypton is not trivial. One way is to look for the decay signature of 85-Kr using the XENON detector itself. However, due to its relatively long half life (~11 years), it takes many months to get an accurate estimate with this method. So, how do we measure the tiny amount of krypton relatively quickly and accurately?

An atom trapping device has has been developed by the group at Columbia University to do exactly that (see E. Aprile, T. Yoon, A. Loose, L. W. Goetzke, and T. Zelevinsky, “An atom trap trace analysis system for measuring krypton contamination in xenon dark matter detectors”, Rev. Sci. Instrum., 84, 093105 (2013), arXiv:1305.6510). The method, called Atom Trap Trace Analysis (ATTA), was originally developed at Argonne National Lab for the purpose of radioactive dating. It has been adapted to measure samples of xenon gas taken directly from the XENON detectors.

All ATTA devices have the same operating principle: traditional laser cooling and trapping techniques are employed to selectively cool and trap the element of interest present in the sample. The trapped atoms emit light which is detected by a photo detector, in our case an avalanche photodiode. The trapped atoms can thus be counted. The Columbia ATTA device is designed to be sensitive to single trapped atoms, since for clean samples the average number of krypton atoms in the trap at any given time is close to zero.

The rate at which the atoms are loaded into the trap is the number we are after. The device is calibrated carefully in order to find the trapping efficiency, i.e. the fraction of krypton atoms that get trapped and counted successfully. Multiplying the measured loading rate for a given sample by the known trapping efficiency gives the total number of krypton atoms flowing through the system. Finally, measuring how many xenon atoms flow through the system at the same time allows the krypton fraction to be calculated. The entire measurement can be completed in one working day.

The Columbia ATTA device allows the xenon used in XENON1T to be assayed for krypton contamination quickly and accurately, thus ensuring that krypton levels are safe before beginning a dark matter run, and during the run itself. And it looks pretty cool, too!