Antinuclei production in pp collisions

3 November 2023

A report from the LHCb experiment.

LHCb figure 1

At the European Physical Society Conference on High Energy Physics, held in Hamburg in August, the LHCb collaboration announced first results on the production of antihelium and antihypertriton nuclei in proton–proton (pp) collisions at the LHC. These promising results open a new research field, that up to now has been pioneered by ground-breaking work from the ALICE collaboration on the central rapidity interval |y| < 0.5. By extending the measurements into the so-far unexplored forward region 1.0 < y < 4.0, the LHCb results provide new experimental input to derive the production cross sections of antimatter particles formed in pp collisions, which are not calculable from first principles.

LHCb’s newly developed helium-identification technique mainly exploits information from energy losses through ionisation in the silicon sensors upstream (VELO and TT stations) and downstream (Inner Tracker) of the LHCb magnet. The amplitude measurements from up to ~50 silicon layers are combined for each subdetector into a log-likelihood estimator. In addition, timing information from the Outer Tracker and velocity measurements from the RICH detectors are used to improve the separation power between heavy helium nuclei (with charge Z = 2) and lighter, singly charged particles (mostly charged pions). With a signal efficiency of about 50%, a nearly background-free sample of 1.1 × 105 helium and antihelium nuclei is identified in the data collected during LHC Run 2 from 2016 to 2018 (see figure, inset).

The helium identification method proves the feasibility of new research fields at LHCb

As a first step towards a light-nuclei physics programme in LHCb, hypertritons are reconstructed via their two-body decay into a now-identified helium nucleus and a charged pion. Hypertriton (3ΛH) is a bound state of a proton, a neutron and a Λ hyperon that can be produced via coalescence in pp collisions. These states provide experimental access to the hyperon–nucleon interaction through the measurement of their lifetime and of their binding energy. Hyperon–nucleon interactions have significant implications for the understanding of astrophysical objects such as neutron stars. For example, the presence of hypernuclei in the dense inner core can significantly suppress the formation of high-mass neutron stars. As a result, there is some tension between the observation of neutron stars heavier than two solar masses and corresponding hypertriton results from the STAR collaboration at Brookhaven. ALICE seems to have resolved the tension between hypertriton measurements at colliders and neutron stars. An independent confirmation of the ALICE result has up to now been missing, and can be provided by LHCb.

The invariant-mass distribution of hypertriton and antihypertriton candidates is shown in figure 1. More than 100 signal decays are reconstructed, with a statistical uncertainty on the mass of 0.16 MeV, similar to that of STAR. In a next step, corrections for efficiencies and acceptance obtained from simulation, as well as systematic uncertainties on the mass scale and lifetime measurement, will be derived.

The new helium identification method from LHCb summarised here proves the feasibility of a rich programme of measurements in QCD and astrophysics involving light antinuclei in the coming years. The collaboration also plans to apply the method to other LHCb Run 2 datasets, such as proton–ion, ion–ion and SMOG collision data.

Further reading

LHCb Collab. 2023 LHCb-CONF-2023-002.

LHCb Collab. 2023 LHCb-DP-2023-002.

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