Dark matter from down under

It isn’t often I get to plug an important experiment in high-energy physics located within my own vast country so I thought I would take this opportunity to do just that. That’s right – the land of the kangaroo, meat-pie and infamously slow internet (68th in the world if I recall) has joined the hunt for the ever elusive dark matter particle.

By now you have probably heard that about 85% of the universe is all made out of stuff that is dark. Searching for this invisible matter has not been an easy task, however the main strategy has involved detections of faint signals of dark matter scattering off nuclei that constantly pass through the Earth unimpeded. Up until now, the main contenders for these dark matter direct detection experiments have been performed above the equator.

The SABRE (Sodium-iodide with Active Background REjection) collaboration plans to operate two detectors – one in my home-state of Victoria, Australia at SUPL (Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory) and another in the northern hemisphere at LNGS, Italy. The choice to run two experiments in seperate hemispheres has the goal of potentially removing systematic effects inherent in the seasonal rotation of the Earth. In particular – any of these seasonal effects should be opposite in phase, whilst the dark matter signal should remain the same. This actually takes us to a novel dark matter direct detection search method known as annual modulation, which has been added to the spotlight through the DAMA/LIBRA scintillation detector underground the Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso in Italy.

Around the world, around the world

Figure 1: When the Earth rotates around the sun, relative to the Milky Way’s DM halo, it experiences a larger interaction when it moves “head-on” with the wind. Taken from

The DAMA/LIBRA experiment superseded the DAMA/NaI experiment which observed the dark matter halo over a period of 7 annual cycles ranging from 1995 to 2002. The idea is quite simple really. Current theory suggests that the Milky Way galaxy is surrounded by a halo of dark matter with our solar system casually floating by experiencing some “flux” of particles that pass through us all year round. However, current and past theory (up to a point) also suggest the Earth does a full revolution around the sun in a year’s time. In fact, with respect to this dark matter “wind”, the Earth’s relative velocity would be added on its approach, occurring around the start of June and then subtracted on its recession, in December. When studying detector interactions with the DM particles, one would then expect the rates to be higher in the middle of the year and of course lower at the end – hence a modulation (annually). Up to here, annual modulation results would be quite suitably model-independent and so wouldn’t depend on your particular choice of DM particle – so long as it has some interaction with the detector.

The DAMA collaboration, having reported almost 14 years of annual modulation results in total, claim evidence for a picture quite consistent with what would be expected for a range of dark matter scenarios in the energy range of 2-6 keV. This however has long been in tension with the wider community of detection for WIMP dark matter. Those such as XENON (which incidentally is also located in the Gran Sasso mountains) and CDMS have reported no detection of dark matter in the same ranges as that which the DAMA collaboration claimed to have seen them. Although these employ quite different materials such as (you guessed it) liquid xenon in the case of XENON and cryogenically cooled semiconductors at CDMS.

Figure 2: Annual modulation results from DAMA. Could this be the presence of WIMP dark matter or some other seasonal effect? From the DAMA Collaboration.

Yes, there is also the COSINE-100 experiment, using the same materials as those in DAMA (that is, sodium iodide), based in South Korea. And yes, they also published a letter to Nature claiming their results to be in “severe tension” with those of the DAMA annual modulation signal – under the assumption of WIMP interactions that are spin-independent with the detector material. However, this does not totally rule out the observation of dark matter by DAMA – just the fact that it is very unlikely to correspond to the gold-standard WIMP in a standard halo scenario. According to the collaboration, it will certainly take years more data collection to know for sure. But that’s where SABRE comes in!

As above, so below

Before the arrival of SABRE’s twin detectors in both the northern and southern hemispheres, the first phase known as the PoP (Proof of Principle) must be performed to analyze the entire search strategy and evaluate the backgrounds present in the crystal structures. Certainly, another feature of SABRE is a crystal background rate quite below that of DAMA/LIBRA using ultra-radiopure sodium iodide crystals. With the estimated current background and 50 kg of detector material, it is expected that the DAMA/LIBRA signal should be able to be independently verified (or refuted) in a matter of 3 years.

If you asked me, there is something a little special about an experiment operating on the frontier of fundamental physics in a small regional Victorian town with a population just over 6000 known for an active gold mining community and the oldest running foot race in Australia. Of course, Stawell features just the right environment to shield the detector from the relentless bombardment of cosmic rays on the Earth’s surface – and that’s why it is located 1 km underground. In fact, radiation contamination is such a prevalent issue for these sensitive detectors that everything from the concrete to the metal bolts that go in them must first be tested – and all this at the same time as the mine is still being operated.

Now, not only is SABRE experiments running in both Australia and Italy, but they actually comprise a collaboration of physicists also from the UK and the USA. But most importantly (for me, anyway) – this is the southern hemisphere’s very first dark matter detector – a great milestone and a fantastic opportunity to put Aussies in the pilot’s seat to uncover one of nature’s biggest mysteries. But for now, crack open a cold one – footy’s almost on!

Figure 3: The SABRE collaboration operates internationally with detectors in the northern and southern hemispheres. Taken from GSSI.

References and Further Reading

  1. The SABRE dark matter experiment: https://sabre.lngs.infn.it/.
  2. The COSINE-100 experiment summarizing the annual modulation technique: https://cosine.yale.edu/about-us/annual-modulation-dark-matter.
  3. The COSINE-100 Experiment search for dark matter in tension with that of the DAMA signal: arXiv:1906.01791.
  4. An overview of the SABRE experiment and its Proof of Principle (PoP) deployment: arXiv:1807.08073.

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