Authors: XENON1T Collaboration
Recently the particle physics world has been abuzz with a new result from the XENON1T experiment who may have seen a revolutionary signal. XENON1T is one of the world’s most sensitive dark matter experiments. The experiment consists of a huge tank of Xenon placed deep underground in the Gran Sasso mine in Italy. It is a ‘direct-detection’ experiment, hunting for very rare signals of dark matter particles from space interacting with their detector. It was originally designed to look for WIMP’s, Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, who used to be everyone’s favorite candidate for dark matter. However, given recent null results by WIMP-hunting direct-detection experiments, and collider experiments at the LHC, physicists have started to broaden their dark matter horizons. Experiments like XENON1T, who were designed to look for heavy WIMP’s colliding off of Xenon nuclei have realized that they can also be very sensitive to much lighter particles by looking for electron recoils. New particles that are much lighter than traditional WIMP’s would not leave much of an impact on large Xenon nuclei, but they can leave a signal in the detector if they instead scatter off of the electrons around those nuclei. These electron recoils can be identified by the ionization and scintillation signals they leave in the detector, allowing them to be distinguished from nuclear recoils.
In this recent result, the XENON1T collaboration searched for these electron recoils in the energy range of 1-200 keV with unprecedented sensitivity. Their extraordinary sensitivity is due to its exquisite control over backgrounds and extremely low energy threshold for detection. Rather than just being impressed, what has gotten many physicists excited is that the latest data shows an excess of events above expected backgrounds in the 1-7 keV region. The statistical significance of the excess is 3.5 sigma, which in particle physics is enough to claim ‘evidence’ of an anomaly but short of the typical 5-sigma required to claim discovery.
So what might this excess mean? The first, and least fun answer, is nothing. 3.5 sigma is not enough evidence to claim discovery, and those well versed in particle physics history know that there have been numerous excesses with similar significances have faded away with more data. Still it is definitely an intriguing signal, and worthy of further investigation.
The pessimistic explanation is that it is due to some systematic effect or background not yet modeled by the XENON1T collaboration. Many have pointed out that one should be skeptical of signals that appear right at the edge of an experiments energy detection threshold. The so called ‘efficiency turn on’, the function that describes how well an experiment can reconstruct signals right at the edge of detection, can be difficult to model. However, there are good reasons to believe this is not the case here. First of all the events of interest are actually located in the flat part of their efficiency curve (note the background line is flat below the excess), and the excess rises above this flat background. So to explain this excess their efficiency would have to somehow be better at low energies than high energies, which seems very unlikely. Or there would have to be a very strange unaccounted for bias where some higher energy events were mis-reconstructed at lower energies. These explanations seem even more implausible given that the collaboration performed an electron reconstruction calibration using the radioactive decays of Radon-220 over exactly this energy range and were able to model the turn on and detection efficiency very well.
However the possibility of a novel Standard Model background is much more plausible. The XENON collaboration raises the possibility that the excess is due to a previously unobserved background from tritium β-decays. Tritium decays to Helium-3 and an electron and a neutrino with a half-life of around 12 years. The energy released in this decay is 18.6 keV, giving the electron having an average energy of a few keV. The expected energy spectrum of this decay matches the observed excess quite well. Additionally, the amount of contamination needed to explain the signal is exceedingly small. Around 100 parts-per-billion of H2 would lead to enough tritium to explain the signal, which translates to just 3 tritium atoms per kilogram of liquid Xenon. The collaboration tries their best to investigate this possibility, but they neither rule out or confirm such a small amount of tritium contamination. However, other similar contaminants, like diatomic oxygen have been confirmed to be below this level by 2 orders of magnitude, so it is not impossible that they were able to avoid this small amount of contamination.
So while many are placing their money on the tritium explanation, there is the exciting possibility remains that this is our first direct evidence of physics Beyond the Standard Model (BSM)! So if the signal really is a new particle or interaction what would it be? Currently it it is quite hard to pin down exactly based on the data. The analysis was specifically searching for two signals that would have shown up in exactly this energy range: axions produced in the sun, and neutrinos produced in the sun interacting with electrons via a large (BSM) magnetic moment. Both of these models provide good fits to the signal shape, with the axion explanation being slightly preferred. However since this result has been released, many have pointed out that these models would actually be in conflict with constraints from astrophysical measurements. In particular, the axion model they searched for would have given stars an additional way to release energy, causing them to cool at a faster rate than in the Standard Model. The strength of interaction between axions and electrons needed to explain the XENON1T excess is incompatible with the observed rates of stellar cooling. There are similar astrophysical constraints on neutrino magnetic moments that also make it unlikely.
This has left door open for theorists to try to come up with new explanations for these excess events, or think of clever ways to alter existing models to avoid these constraints. And theorists are certainly seizing this opportunity! There are new explanations appearing on the arXiv every day, with no sign of stopping. In the roughly 2 weeks since the XENON1T announced their result and this post is being written, there have already been 50 follow up papers! Many of these explanations involve various models of dark matter with some additional twist, such as being heated up in the sun or being boosted to a higher energy in some other way.
So while theorists are currently having their fun with this, the only way we will figure out the true cause of this this anomaly is with more data. The good news is that the XENON collaboration is already preparing for the XENONnT experiment that will serve as a follow to XENON1T. XENONnT will feature a larger active volume of Xenon and a lower background level, allowing them to potentially confirm this anomaly at the 5-sigma level with only a few months of data. If the excess persists, more data would also allow them to better determine the shape of the signal; allowing them to possibly distinguish between the tritium shape and a potential new physics explanation. If real, other liquid Xenon experiments like LUX and PandaX should also be able to independently confirm the signal in the near future. The next few years should be a very exciting time for these dark matter experiments so stay tuned!