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CERN | Geneva | Switzerland

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Can the LHC solve the dark matter mystery?

Last part in a series of four on Dark Matter

After reviewing how dark matter reveals its presence through gravitational effects, the lack of direct evidence of interaction with regular matter and the cosmological evidence supporting its existence, here is what the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN can do.

We can find dark matter with the LHC but only if dark matter interacts with regular matter. Since we do not know how this may happen, we design traps suited for as many beasts as there are theories. Here are a few.


The current theory describing particle physics is the Standard Model. It has been extremely successful, explaining just about everything observed so far. Unfortunately, at higher energy, its equations start to break down.

This is why theorists developed Supersymmetry (or SUSY), building on the Standard Model and extending it further. What is truly remarkable is that this new theory invented to fix the flaws of the Standard Model predicts the existence of particles with the properties expected from dark matter, hence its great popularity.

All would be perfect except that no one has detected any of the many expected supersymmetric particles. This might simply mean that these particles are heavier than the current LHC reach. We will have more chances of discovering them once the LHC resumes in 2015 at much higher energy.

The lightest supersymmetric particle

In the LHC, protons collide, producing large amounts of energy. Since energy, E, and mass, m, are two forms of the same essence as stated by the famous E = mc2, energy can materialise into new particles.  Heavy particles are unstable and quickly decay into lighter ones.

Some variants of SUSY predict that all supersymmetric particles must decay into other supersymmetric particles. Under this assumption, the lightest SUSY particle cannot decay into anything else and remains stable, not interacting with anything else just like dark matter is expected to be.


A typical decay chain is shown above. A supersymmetric quark decays into another SUSY particle, χ2, and a normal quark, q. At the two subsequent stages, an electron or muon (denoted l+ and l) and lighter SUSY particles are produced. The lightest one, in this case a particle called neutralino χ1, cannot decay into anything else and escapes the detector leaving no signal behind.

Seeing the invisible

An event is a snapshot capturing all lighter particles emitted when an unstable particle decays. And within each event, the energy needs to be balanced. So even when a particle flies across the detector leaving no signal, it can still be detected through the energy imbalance in the event. Invisible particles such as the lightest supersymmetric particles can be detected this way.

Both the CMS and ATLAS collaborations have been looking for events containing large amounts of unbalanced energy accompanying a single photon or a single jet (a jet is a bundle of particles made of quarks).


This figure displays an event from the ATLAS experiment containing a single photon (the energy deposit is shown in yellow around 4 o’clock on the left picture) and the missing energy represented by the pink dashed line around 10 o’clock.

This is exactly what an event containing the lightest supersymmetric particle and a photon would look like. But an event containing a Z boson and a photon would look just the same if the Z boson decayed into two neutrinos (other particles that do not interact with the detector).

Unfortunately, nothing has been observed in any of the channels studied so far that is in excess of what is expected from the background, i.e. other known types of events giving similar signatures.

Unlike the direct dark matter searches, the LHC analyses are sensitive to light dark matter particles. Remember the messy plot I showed about direct searches for dark matter? CMS and ATLAS can help clarify the situation, although their results depend on theoretical assumptions when the direct searches don’t.

Below are the CMS results for a search of events containing a single jet and missing energy.  The horizontal axis gives the mass of the dark matter candidate and the vertical axis, the allowed interaction rate with ordinary matter. Everything above the various lines is excluded. CMS (solid red line) exclude light dark matter particles for large interaction rates, a region inaccessible to XENON100, (solid blue curve) the most powerful experiment for direct dark matter searches.


The Higgs boson and dark matter

Another approach to find dark matter relies on some theories that predict that the Higgs boson could decay into dark matter particles. Higgs bosons can be produced with another boson, such as with a Z boson. If the Higgs boson decays to any type of dark matter, we would only see the decay products of the Z and missing energy for the Higgs boson. Searches for such decays have so far not revealed anything above the expected background level. inv-Higgs

A dark parallel world

A group of theorists developed an amazing Theory of Dark Matter incorporating ideas of a Hidden Valley where two worlds would evolve in parallel: our world with Standard Model and the yet undiscovered supersymmetric particles, and a dark world populated with dark particles as depicted below, where each horizontal line represents a particle of a given mass.


The idea is that the LHC could produce heavy supersymmetric particles. These particles would decay in a cascade into lighter ones down to the lightest SUSY one. That particle would be a “messenger” capable of crossing over the Hidden Valley, escaping into the dark sector and becoming invisible to us.

In the dark sector, this particle could decay in a cascade into lighter dark particles until it reaches the lighest supersymmetric dark particle, another messenger capable of tunnelling back to our world where it would reappear into many pairs of electrons or muons.

This may sound like pure science fiction but it is all rooted in sound, but still unproven, physics as a quick check with the original papers cited above will demonstrate.

I was until recently one of the experimentalists looking for signs of this Hidden Valley, selecting events containing regrouped pairs of electrons and muons but so far, nothing has been found.

Experimentalists are still looking, there and in many other places, constantly refining their searches and trying new strategies. If dark matter interacts with matter, we ought to find it.

First part in a Dark Matter series:        How do we know Dark Matter exists?

Second part in a Dark Matter series:   Getting our hands on dark matter

Third part in a Dark Matter series:      Cosmology and dark matter

Pauline Gagnon

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