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Pauline Gagnon | |

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Dark matter and dark energy better watch out

Dark matter and dark energy feature prominently at the European Physics Society conference on particle physics in Vienna. Although physicists now understand pretty well the basic constituents of matter, all what one sees on Earth, in stars and galaxies, this huge amount of matter only accounts for 5% of the whole content of the Universe. Not surprising then that much efforts are deployed to elucidate the nature of dark matter (27% of the Universe), and dark energy (68%).

Since the Big Bang, the Universe is not only expanding, but this expansion is also accelerating. So which energy fuels this acceleration? We call it dark energy. This is still something absolutely unknown but the Dark Energy Survey (DES) team is determined to get some answers. To do so, they are searching a quarter of the southern sky, mapping the location, shape and distribution of various astronomical objects such as galactic clusters (large groups of galaxies) and supernovae (exploding stars). Their goal is to record information on 300 million galaxies and 2500 supernovae.

Galaxies formed thanks to gravity that allowed matter to cluster. But this happened against the dispersive effect of dark energy, since the expansion of the Universe scattered matter away. The DES scientists essentially study how large structures such as galactic clusters evolved in time by looking at objects at various distances, and whose light comes from different times in the past. With more data, they hope to better understand the dynamic of expansion.

Dark matter is just as unknown. So far, it has only manifested itself through gravitational effects. We can “feel” its presence but we cannot see it, since it emits no light, unlike regular matter found in stars and supernovae. As if the whole Universe was full of ghosts. A dozen detectors, using different techniques, are trying to find dark matter particles.

Not easy to catch such elusive particles when no one knows how and if these particles interact with matter. Moreover, these particles must interact very rarely with regular matter (otherwise, they would already have been found), the name of the game is to use massive detectors, in the hope one nucleus from one of the detector atoms will recoil when hit by a dark matter particle, inducing a small but detectable vibration in the detector. The experiments search for a range of possibilities, depending on the mass of the dark matter particles and how often they can interact with matter.

The plot below shows how often dark matter particles could interact with a nucleus (vertical axis) as a function of their mass (horizontal axis). This spans a wide region of possibilities one must test. The various curves indicate what has been achieved so far by different experiments. All possibilites above the curves are excluded. The left part of the plot is harder to probe since the lighter the dark matter particles is, the smaller the vibration induced.

CRESST-limitThe CRESST Collaboration uses small crystals operating at extremely low temperature. They are sensitive to the temperature rise that would occur if a dark matter particle deposited the smallest amount of energy. This allowed them to succeed where tens of previous experiments had failed: looking for very light particles. This is shown on the plot by the solid red curve in the upper left corner. All possibilities above are now excluded. So far, this area was only accessible to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiments (results not shown here) but only when making various theoretical hypotheses. CRESST has just opened a new world of possibilities and they will sweep nearly the entire area in the coming years. Light dark matter particles better watch out.

Pauline Gagnon

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