Weakly interacting massive particles
In particle physics and astrophysics, weakly interacting massive particles, or WIMPs, are among the leading hypothetical particle physics candidates for dark matter. The term “WIMP” is given to a dark matter particle that was produced by falling out of thermal equilibrium with the hot dense plasma of the early universe, although it is often used to refer to any dark matter candidate that interacts with standard particles via a force similar in strength to the weak nuclear force. Its name comes from the fact that obtaining the correct abundance of dark matter today via thermal production requires a self-annihilation cross section of , which is roughly what is expected for a new particle in the 100 GeV mass range that interacts via the electroweak force. This apparent coincidence is known as the “WIMP miracle”. Because supersymmetric extensions of the standard model of particle physics readily predict a new particle with these properties, a stable supersymmetric partner has long been a prime WIMP candidate. However, recent null results from direct detection experiments including LUX and SuperCDMS, along with the failure to produce evidence of supersymmetry in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment has cast doubt on the simplest WIMP hypothesis. Experimental efforts to detect WIMPs include the search for products of WIMP annihilation, including gamma rays, neutrinos and cosmic rays in nearby galaxies and galaxy clusters; direct detection experiments designed to measure the collision of WIMPs with nuclei in the laboratory, as well as attempts to directly produce WIMPs in colliders such as the LHC.
Theoretical framework and properties
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WIMP-like particles are predicted by R-parity-conserving supersymmetry, a popular type of extension to the standard model of particle physics, although none of the large number of new particles in supersymmetry have been observed. The main theoretical characteristics of a WIMP are:
- Interactions only through the weak nuclear force and gravity, or possibly other interactions with cross-sections no higher than the weak scale;
- Large mass compared to standard particles (WIMPs with sub-GeV masses may be considered to be light dark matter).
Because of their lack of electromagnetic interaction with normal matter, WIMPs would be dark and invisible through normal electromagnetic observations. Because of their large mass, they would be relatively slow moving and therefore "cold". Their relatively low velocities would be insufficient to overcome the mutual gravitational attraction, and as a result WIMPs would tend to clump together. WIMPs are considered one of the main candidates for cold dark matter, the others being massive compact halo objects (MACHOs) and axions. (These names were deliberately chosen for contrast, with MACHOs named later than WIMPs.) Also, in contrast to MACHOs, there are no known stable particles within the standard model of particle physics that have all the properties of WIMPs. The particles that have little interaction with normal matter, such as neutrinos, are all very light, and hence would be fast moving, or "hot".
WIMPs as dark matter
Although the existence of WIMPs in nature is hypothetical at this point, it would resolve a number of astrophysical and cosmological problems related to dark matter. There is near consensus today among astronomers that most of the mass in the Universe is dark. Simulations of a universe full of cold dark matter produce galaxy distributions that are roughly similar to what is observed. By contrast, hot dark matter would smear out the large-scale structure of galaxies and thus is not considered a viable cosmological model.
The WIMP fits the model of a relic dark matter particle from the early Universe, when all particles were in a state of thermal equilibrium. For sufficiently high temperatures, such as existed in the early Universe, the dark matter particle and its antiparticle would have been both forming from and annihilating into lighter particles. As the Universe expanded and cooled, the average thermal energy of these lighter particles decreased and eventually became insufficient to form a dark matter particle-antiparticle pair. The annihilation of the dark matter particle-antiparticle pairs, however, would have continued, and the number density of dark matter particles would have begun to decrease exponentially. Eventually, however, the number density would become so low that the dark matter particle and antiparticle interaction would cease, and the number of dark matter particles would remain (roughly) constant as the Universe continued to expand. Particles with a larger interaction cross section would continue to annihilate for a longer period of time, and thus would have a smaller number density when the annihilation interaction ceases. Based on the current estimated abundance of dark matter in the Universe, if the dark matter particle is such a relic particle, the interaction cross section governing the particle-antiparticle annihilation can be no larger than the cross section for the weak interaction. If this model is correct, the dark matter particle would have the properties of the WIMP.
Because WIMPs may only interact through gravitational and weak forces, they are extremely difficult to detect. However, there are many experiments underway to attempt to detect WIMPs both directly and indirectly. Direct detection refers to the observation of the effects of a WIMP-nucleus collision as the dark matter passes through a detector in an Earth laboratory. Indirect detection refers to the observation of annihilation or decay products of WIMPs far away from Earth.
Indirect detection efforts typically focus on locations where WIMP dark matter is thought to accumulate the most: in the centers of galaxies and galaxy clusters, as well as in the smaller satellite galaxies of the Milky Way. These are particularly useful since they tend to contain very little baryonic matter, reducing the expected background from standard astrophysical processes. Typical indirect searches look for excess gamma rays, which are predicted both as final-state products of annihilation, or are produced as charged particles interact with ambient radiation via inverse Compton scattering. The spectrum and intensity of a gamma ray signal depends on the annihilation products, and must be computed on a model-by-model basis. Experiments which have placed bounds on WIMP annihilation, via the non-observation of an annihilation signal, include the Fermi-LAT gamma ray telescope and the VERITAS ground-based gamma ray observatory. Although the annihilation of WIMPs into standard model particles also predicts the production of high-energy neutrinos, their interaction rate is too low to reliably detect a dark matter signal at present. Future observations from the IceCube observatory in Antarctica may be able to differentiate WIMP-produced neutrinos from standard astrophysical neutrinos; however, at present, only 37 cosmological neutrinos have been observed, making such a distinction impossible.
Another type of indirect WIMP signal could come from the Sun. Halo WIMPs may, as they pass through the Sun, interact with solar protons, helium nuclei as well as heavier elements. If a WIMP loses enough energy in such an interaction to fall below the local escape velocity, it would not have enough energy to escape the gravitational pull of the Sun and would remain gravitationally bound. As more and more WIMPs thermalize inside the Sun, they begin to annihilate with each other, forming a variety of particles including high-energy neutrinos. These neutrinos may then travel to the Earth to be detected in one of the many neutrino telescopes, such as the Super-Kamiokande detector in Japan. The number of neutrino events detected per day at these detectors depends upon the properties of the WIMP, as well as on the mass of the Higgs boson. Similar experiments are underway to detect neutrinos from WIMP annihilations within the Earth and from within the galactic center.
While most WIMP models indicate that a large enough number of WIMPs must be captured in large celestial bodies for these experiments to succeed, it remains possible that these models are either incorrect or only explain part of the dark matter phenomenon. Thus, even with the multiple experiments dedicated to providing indirect evidence for the existence of cold dark matter, direct detection measurements are also necessary to solidify the theory of WIMPs.
Although most WIMPs encountering the Sun or the Earth are expected to pass through without any effect, it is hoped that a large number of dark matter WIMPs crossing a sufficiently large detector will interact often enough to be seen—at least a few events per year. The general strategy of current attempts to detect WIMPs is to find very sensitive systems that can be scaled up to large volumes. This follows the lessons learned from the history of the discovery and (by now) routine detection of the neutrino.
A technique used by the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) detector at the Soudan Mine relies on multiple very cold germanium and silicon crystals. The crystals (each about the size of a hockey puck) are cooled to about 50 mK. A layer of metal (aluminium and tungsten) at the surfaces is used to detect a WIMP passing through the crystal. This design hopes to detect vibrations in the crystal matrix generated by an atom being "kicked" by a WIMP. The tungsten transition edge sensors (TES) are held at the critical temperature so they are in the superconducting state. Large crystal vibrations will generate heat in the metal and are detectable because of a change in resistance.
In February 2010, researchers at the Soudan Mine CDMS II experiment announced that they had observed two events that may have been caused by WIMP-nucleus collisions. CoGeNT, a smaller detector using a single germanium puck, designed to sense WIMPs with smaller masses, reported hundreds of detection events in 56 days. Juan Collar, who presented the results to a conference at the University of California, was quoted: "If it's real, we're looking at a very beautiful dark-matter signal" (Other explanations, such as an unexplained radioactive decay process in the electronics, might cause a spurious signal) The experiment estimated the WIMP masses at 7-11 GeV (approximately 10× the mass of a proton), which is at lower limit of detection of the CDMSII experiment.
The Directional Recoil Identification From Tracks (DRIFT) collaboration is attempting to utilize the predicted directionality of the WIMP signal in order to prove the existence of WIMPs. DRIFT detectors use a 1m3 volume of low pressure carbon disulfide gas as a target material. The use of a low pressure gas means that a WIMP colliding with an atom in the target will cause it to recoil several millimetres leaving a track of charged particles in the gas. This charged track is drifted to an MWPC readout plane that allows it to be reconstructed in three dimensions, which can then be used to determine the direction the WIMP came from.
Another way of detecting atoms "knocked about" by a WIMP is to use scintillating material, so that light pulses are generated by the moving atom. Experiments such as DEAP at SNOLAB or WARP at the LNGS plan to instrument a very large target mass of liquid argon for sensitive WIMP searches. Another example of this technique is the DAMA/NaI and DAMA/LIBRA detector in Italy. It uses multiple materials to identify false signals from other light-creating processes. This experiment observed an annual change in the rate of signals in the detector. This annual modulation is one of the predicted signatures of a WIMP signal, and on this basis the DAMA collaboration has claimed a positive detection. Other groups, however, have not confirmed this result. The CDMS and EDELWEISS experiments would be expected to observe a significant number of WIMP-nucleus scatters if the DAMA signal were in fact caused by WIMPs. Since the other experiments do not see these events, the interpretation of the DAMA result as a WIMP detection can be excluded for most WIMP models. It is possible to devise models that reconcile a positive DAMA result with the other negative results, but as the sensitivity of other experiments improves, this becomes more difficult. The CDMS data taken in the Soudan Mine and made public in May 2004 exclude the entire DAMA signal region given certain standard assumptions about the properties of the WIMPs and the dark matter halo.
The PICASSO (Project In Canada to Search for Supersymmetric Objects) experiment is a direct dark matter search experiment that is located at SNOLAB in Canada. It uses bubble detectors with Freon as the active mass. PICASSO is predominantly sensitive to spin-dependent interactions of WIMPs with the fluorine atoms in the Freon.
A bubble detector is a radiation sensitive device that uses small droplets of superheated liquid that are suspended in a gel matrix. It uses the principle of a bubble chamber but since only the small droplets can undergo a phase transition at a time the detector can stay active for much longer periods than a classic bubble chamber. When enough energy is deposited in a droplet by ionizing radiation the superheated droplet undergoes a phase transition and becomes a gas bubble. The PICASSO detectors contain Freon droplets with an average diameter of 200 µm. The bubble development in the detector is accompanied by an acoustic shock wave that is picked up by piezo-electric sensors. The main advantage of the bubble detector technique is that the detector is almost insensitive to background radiation. The detector sensitivity can be adjusted by changing the temperature of the droplets. Freon-loaded detectors are typically operated at temperatures between 15 °C and 55 °C. There is another similar experiment using this technique in Europe called SIMPLE.
PICASSO reports results (November 2009) for spin-dependent WIMP interactions on 19F. No dark matter signal has been found, but for WIMP masses of 24 Gev/c2 new stringent limits have been obtained on the spin-dependent cross section for WIMP scattering on 19F of 13.9 pb (90% CL). This result has been converted into a cross section limit for WIMP interactions on protons of 0.16 pb (90% CL). The obtained limits restrict recent interpretations of the DAMA/LIBRA annual modulation effect in terms of spin dependent interactions.
The Large Underground Xenon experiment contains 370 kilograms of liquid xenon, making it more sensitive than either XENON or CDMS. First results from October 2013 report that no signals were seen, appearing to refute results obtained from less sensitive instruments.
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