Theoretical physicists have designed a new way to explain the how dark matter interactions can explain the observed amount of dark matter in the universe today. This elastically decoupling dark matter framework, is a hybrid of conventional and novel dark matter models.
Authors: Eric Kuflik, Maxim Perelstein, Nicolas Rey-Le Lorier, Yu-Dai Tsai
Reference: 1512.04545, Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 221302 (2016)
The particle identity of dark matter is one of the biggest open questions in physics. The simplest and most widely assumed explanation is that dark matter is a weakly-interacting massive particle (WIMP). Assuming that dark matter starts out in thermal equilibrium in the hot plasma of the early universe, the present cosmic abundance of WIMPs is set by the balance of two effects:
- When two WIMPs find each other, they can annihilate into ordinary matter. This depletes the number of WIMPs in the universe.
- The universe is expanding, making it harder for WIMPs to find each other.
This process of “thermal freeze out” leads to an abundance of WIMPs controlled by the dark matter mass and interaction strength. The term ‘weakly-interacting massive particle’ comes from the observation that dark matter of roughly the mass of the weak force particle that interact through the weak nuclear force gives the experimentally measured dark matter density today.
More recently, physicists noticed that dark matter with very large interactions with itself (not ordinary matter), can produce the correct dark matter density in another way. These “strongly interacting massive particle” models reduce regulate the amount of dark matter through 3-to-2 interactions that reduce the total number of dark matter particles rather than annihilation into ordinary matter.
The authors of 1512.04545 have proposed an intermediate road that interpolates between these two types of dark matter. The “elastically decoupling dark matter” (ELDER) scenario. ELDERs have both of the above interactions: they can annihilate pairwise into ordinary matter, or sets of three ELDERs can turn into two ELDERS.
The cosmic history of these ELDERs is as follows:
- ELDERs are produced in thermal bath immediately after the big bang.
- Pairs of ELDERS annihilate into ordinary matter. Like WIMPs, they interact weakly with ordinary matter.
- As the universe expands, the rate for annihilation into Standard Model particles falls below the rate at which the universe expands
- Assuming that the ELDERs interact strongly amongst themselves, the 3-to-2 number-changing process still occurs. Because this process distributes the energy of 3 ELDERs in the initial state to 2 ELDERs in the final state, the two outgoing ELDERs have more kinetic energy: they’re hotter. This turns out to largely counteract the effect of the expansion of the universe.
The neat effect here is the abundance of ELDERs is actually set by the interaction with ordinary matter, like WIMPs. However, because they have this 3-to-2 heating period, they are able to produce the observed present-day dark matter density for very different choices of interactions. In this sense, the authors show that this framework opens up a new “phase diagram” in the space of dark matter theories:
Background reading on dark matter:
- Dark Matter Candidates from Particle Physics and Methods of Detection, Jonathan L. Feng
- A History of Dark Matter, Gianfranco Bertone, Dan Hooper
- Lectures on Dark Matter Physics, Mariangela Lisanti