The UKs Dark Matter Collaborations detector lab in Buolby Mine, Yorkshire.
Underneath the mine the WIMP detector is shielded from cosmic rays.
Dark-matter detector could pin down the Universe’s missing mass.
Researchers in London are building a cheap dark-matter detector that should be able to spot the exotic particles called WIMPs that are suspected of hiding most of the Universe’s missing mass1.
A prototype of the detector has just shown, for the first time, that it can spot something as close to a WIMP as it’s possible to produce in the lab.
Howard’s team said that WIMPs entering the detector would occasionally collide with the nucleus of a xenon atom, causing a brief flash of light called a primary scintillation and removing an electron from the atom. An electric field would pull these electrons through the liquid into the xenon gas, where they would induce a secondary scintillation flash.
These two distinct events are crucial to WIMP identification. Other particles, such as cosmic rays, induce the same processes. But the brightness of the primary and secondary scintillations would be different for WIMPs, cosmic rays and other particles.
The closest thing to a WIMP that the researchers could use readily to test their device is a neutron. So they teamed up with Farhat Beg and colleagues, also at Imperial, who have developed a cheap and convenient table-top source of neutron beams called a plasma focus. Neutrons for scientific research are usually generated in nuclear reactors.
Using this source, the Imperial researchers show that the xenon detector spots and identifies neutrons, implying that it should be able to do the same with WIMPs. Indeed, neutrons give a signal so much like that of WIMPs that the remaining challenge will be to tell them apart.
"We’re now making a full-scale detector," Howard says. They hope to install it in the UKDMC mine in the next 12 to 18 months.
PHILIP BALL | © Nature News Service
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