Picture yourself in a car, your hand surfing the breeze through the open window. Hold your palm perpendicular to the wind and you can feel its force. Now picture the car slowing, rolling up to a stop sign, and feel the force of the wind lessen until it—and the car—stop.
This wind isn’t due to the weather. It arises because of your motion relative to air molecules. Simple enough to understand and known to kids, dogs and road-trippers the world over.
This wind has an analogue in the rarefied world of particle astrophysics called the “dark matter wind,” and scientists are hoping it will someday become a valuable tool in their investigations into that elusive stuff that apparently makes up about 85 percent of the mass in the universe.
In the analogy above, the air molecules are dark matter particles called WIMPs, or weakly interacting massive particles. Our sun is the car, racing around the Milky Way at about 220 kilometers per second, with the Earth riding shotgun. Together, we move through a halo of dark matter that encompasses our galaxy. But our planet is a rowdy passenger; it moves from one side of the sun to the other in its orbit.
When you add the Earth’s velocity of 30 kilometers per second to the sun’s, as happens when both are traveling in the same direction (toward the constellation Cygnus), then the dark matter wind feels stronger. More WIMPs are moving through the planet than if it were at rest, resulting in greater number of detections by experiments. Subtract that velocity when the Earth is on the other side of its orbit, and the wind feels weaker, resulting in fewer detections.
Astrophysicists have been thinking about the dark matter wind for decades. Among the first, way back in 1986, were theorist David Spergel of Princeton University and colleagues Katherine Freese of the University of Michigan and Andrzej K. Drukier (now in private industry, but still looking for WIMPs).
“We looked at how the Earth’s motion around the sun should cause the number of dark matter particles detected to vary on a regular basis by about 10 percent a year,” Spergel says.
At least that’s what should happen—if our galaxy really is embedded in a circular, basically homogeneous halo of dark matter, and if dark matter is really made up of WIMPs.
The Italian experiment DAMA/NaI and its upgrade DAMA/Libra claim to have been seeing this seasonal modulation for decades, a claim that has yet to be conclusively supported by any other experiments. CoGeNT, an experiment in the Soudan Underground Laboratory in South Dakota, seemed to back them up for a time, but now the signals are thought to be caused by other sources such as high-energy gamma rays hitting a layer of material just outside the germanium of the detector, resulting in a signal that looks much like a WIMP.
Actually confirming the existence of the dark matter wind is important for one simple reason: the pattern of modulation can’t be explained by anything but the presence of dark matter. It’s what’s called a “model-independent” phenomenon. No natural backgrounds—no cosmic rays, no solar neutrinos, no radioactive decays—would show a similar modulation. The dark matter wind could provide a way to continue exploring dark matter, even if the particles are light enough that experiments cannot distinguish them from almost massless particles called neutrinos, which are constantly streaming from the sun and other sources.
“It’s a big, big prize to go after,” says Jocelyn Monroe, a physics professor at Royal Holloway University of London, who currently works on two dark matter detection experiments, DEAP-3600 at SNOLAB, in Canada, and DMTPC. “If you could correlate detections with the direction in which the planet is moving you would have unambiguous proof” of dark matter.
At the same time Spergel and his colleagues were exploring the wind’s seasonal modulation, he also realized that this correlation could extend far beyond a twice-per-year variation in detection levels. The location of the Earth in its orbit would affect the direction in which nucleons, the particles that make up the nucleus of an atom, recoil when struck by WIMPs. A sensitive-enough detector should see not only the twice-yearly variations, but even daily variations, since the detector constantly changes its orientation to the dark matter wind as the Earth rotates.
“I had initially thought that it wasn’t worth writing up the paper because no experiment had the sensitivity to detect the recoil direction,” he says. “However, I realized that if I pointed out the effect, clever experimentalists would eventually figure out a way to detect it.”
Monroe, as the leader of the DMTPC collaboration, is a member of the clever experimentalist set. The DMTPC, or Dark Matter Time-Projection Chamber, is one of a small number of direct detection experiments that are designed to track the actual movements of recoiling atoms.
Instead of semiconductor crystals or liquefied noble gases, these experiments use low-pressure gases as their target material. DMTPC, for example, uses carbon tetrafluoride. If a WIMP hits a molecule of carbon tetrafluoride, the low pressure in the chamber means that molecule has room to move—up to about 2 millimeters.
“Making the detector is super hard,” Monroe says. “It has to map a 2-millimeter track in 3D.” Not to mention reducing the number of molecules in a detector chamber reduces the chances for a dark matter particle to hit one. According to Monroe, DMTPC will deal with that issue by fabricating an array of 1-cubic-meter-sized modules. The first module has already been constructed and a worldwide collaboration of scientists from five different directional dark matter experiments (including DMTPC) are working on the next step together: a much larger directional dark matter array called the CYGNUS (for CosmoloGY with NUclear recoilS) experiment.
When and if such directional dark matter detectors raise their metaphorical fingers to test the direction of the dark matter wind, Monroe says they’ll be able to see far more than just seasonal variations in detections. Scientists will be able to see variations in atomic recoils not on a seasonal basis, but on a daily basis. Monroe envisions a sort of dark matter telescope with which to study the structure of the halo in our little corner of the Milky Way.
There’s always a chance that this next generation of dark matter detectors, or the generation after, still won’t see anything.
Even that, Monroe says, is progress.
“If we’re still looking in 10 years we might be able to say it’s not WIMPs but something even more exotic As far as we can tell right now, dark matter has got to be something new out there.”