Dark-matter research arrives at the crossroads

1 April 2009

The 2008 DESY Theory Workshop focused on the nature of dark matter.


La recherche sur la matière noire arrive à un tournant

De nombreux indices montrent que l’Univers contient de la matière noire

composée de particules élémentaires inconnues, mais ces observations

laissent subsister bien des interrogations. Quelle est la nature microscopique de cette

matière noire non baryonique ? Jusqu’à quel point est-elle sombre,

froide et stable ? C’est autour de ces questions que s’est articulé l’atelier

de théorie 2008 de DESY « Dark matter at the Crossroads ». Alors que

la recherche sur la nature microscopique de la matière noire entre dans une phase

déterminante, l’atelier s’est attaché à rassembler les

résultats d’un grand nombre d’expériences avant de les confronter aux

prédictions théoriques.

There is overwhelming evidence that the universe contains dark matter made from

unknown elementary particles. Astronomers discovered more than 75 years ago that

spiral galaxies, such as the Milky Way, spin faster than allowed by the gravity of known

kinds of matter. Since then there have been many more observations that point to the

existence of this dark matter.

Gravitational lensing, for example, provides a unique probe of the distribution of

luminous-plus-dark matter in individual galaxies, in clusters of galaxies and in the

large-scale structure of the universe. The deflection of gravitational light depends

only on the gravitational field between the emitter and the observer, and it is

independent of the nature and state of the matter producing the gravitational field, so

it yields by far the most precise determinations of mass in extragalactic astronomy.

Gravitational lensing has established that, like spiral galaxies, elliptical galaxies

are dominated by dark matter.

Strong evidence for the fact that most of the dark matter has a non-baryonic nature

comes from the observed heights of the acoustic peaks in the angular power spectrum of

the cosmic microwave background measured by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe,

because the peaks are sensitive to the fraction of mass in the baryons. It turns out that

only about 4% of the mass of the universe is in baryons, whereas about 20% is in non-

baryonic dark matter – a finding that is also in line with inferences from

primordial nucleosynthesis.

A host of candidates

This leaves some pressing questions. What is the microscopic nature of this non-

baryonic dark matter? Why is its mass fraction today about 20%? How dark is it? How cold

is it? How stable is it?

Progress in finding the answers to such questions provided the focus for the 2008 DESY

Theory Workshop, which was held on 29 September – 2 October.

Organized by Manuel Drees of Bonn, it sought to combine results from a range of experiments

and confront them with theoretical predictions. It is clear that the investigation of the

microscopic nature of dark matter has recently entered a decisive phase. Experiments are

being carried out around the globe to try to identify traces of the mysterious dark-matter

particles. Since the different theoretical candidates appear to have quite distinctive

signatures, there are good reasons to expect that from a combination of all of these

efforts a common picture will materialize within the next decade.

Theoretical particle physicists have proposed a whole host of candidates for the

constituents of non-baryonic dark matter, with fancy names such as axions, axinos,

gravitinos, neutralinos and lightest Kaluza–Klein partners. The best-motivated of

these occur in extensions of the Standard Model that have been proposed to solve other

problems besides the dark-matter puzzle. The axion, for example, arose in extensions

that aim to solve the strong CP problem. It later turned out to be a viable dark-

matter candidate if its mass is in the micro-electron-volt range. Gravitinos and

neutralinos, on the other hand, are the superpartners of the graviton and the neutral

bosons, respectively. They arise in supersymmetric extensions of the Standard Model,

which aim at a solution of the hierarchy problem and at a grand unification of the

strong and electroweak interactions. In fact, neutralinos are natural candidates for

dark matter because they have cross-sections of the order of electroweak interactions

and their masses are expected to be of the order of the weak scale (i.e. 100 GeV).

This leads to the fact that their relic density resulting from freeze-out in the early

universe is just right to account for the observed amount of dark matter.

Neutralinos belong to the class of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs). Such

particles seem to be more or less generic in extensions of the Standard Model at the

tera-electron-volt scale, but their stability (or a long enough lifetime) has to be

imposed. This is not necessary for super-weakly interacting massive particles

(superWIMPs), such as sterile neutrinos, gravitinos, hidden sector gauge bosons

(gauginos) and the axino. For example, unstable but long-lived gravitinos in the

5–300 GeV mass range are viable candidates for dark matter and provide a

consistent thermal history of the universe, including successful Big Bang


Detecting dark matter

Owing to their relatively large elastic cross-sections with atomic nuclei, WIMPs such

as neutralinos are good candidates for direct detection in the laboratory, yielding up to

one event per day, per 100 kg of target material. The expected WIMP signatures are

nuclear recoils, which should occur uniformly throughout the detector volume at a rate

that shows an annual flux modulation by a few per cent. Intriguingly, the DAMA experiment

in the Gran Sasso National Laboratory has seen evidence for such an annual modulation.

However, there is some tension with other direct-detection experiments. Theoretical

studies have revealed that interpretation in terms of a low-mass (5–50 GeV)

WIMP is marginally compatible with the current limits from other experiments. In contrast

to DAMA, which looks just for scintillation light, most of the latter exploit at least

two observables out of the set (phonons, charge, light) to reconstruct the nuclear


Many different techniques based on cryogenic detectors (e.g. the Cryogenic Dark Matter

Search), noble liquids (e.g. the XENON Dark Matter Project) or even bubble chambers, are

currently employed to search for WIMPs via direct detection. Detectors with directional

sensitivity (e.g. the Directional Recoil Identification From Tracks experiment) may not

only have a better signal-to-background discrimination but may also be capable of

measuring the local dark-matter, phase-space distribution. In summary, these direct

experiments are currently probing some of the theoretically interesting regions for WIMP

candidates. The next generation of experiments may enter the era of WIMP (astro)


The axion is another dark-matter candidate for which there are ongoing direct-

detection experiments. Both the Axion Dark Matter Experiment (ADMX) in the US and the

Cosmic Axion Research with Rydberg Atoms in a Resonant Cavity (CARRACK) experiment in

Japan exploit a cooled cavity inside a strong magnetic field to search for the

stimulation of a cavity resonance from a dark-matter axion–photon conversion in the

microwave frequency region, corresponding to the expected axion mass. While they differ

in their detector technology – ADMX uses microwave telescope technology whereas

CARRACK employs Rydberg atom technology – both experiments are designed to cover

the 1–10 μeV mass range. Indeed, if dark matter consists just of axions

then it should soon be found in these experiments. The CERN Axion Solar Telescope,

meanwhile, is looking for axions produced in the Sun.

There are also of course possibilities for indirect detection. Dark matter may not be

absolutely dark. In fact, in regions where the dark-matter density is high (e.g. in the

Earth, in the Sun, near the galactic centre, in external galaxies), neutralinos or other

WIMPs may annihilate to visible particle–antiparticle pairs and lead to signatures

in gamma-ray, neutrino, positron and antiproton spectra. Moreover, superWIMPs (e.g.

gravitinos), may also leave their traces in cosmic-ray spectra if they are not absolutely


Interestingly, the Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-Nuclei

Astrophysics (PAMELA) satellite experiment recently observed an unexpected rise in the

fraction of positrons at energies of 10–100 GeV, thereby confirming earlier

observations by the High Energy Antimatter Telescope balloon experiment. In addition, the

Advanced Thin Ionization Chamber balloon experiment has reported a further anomaly in the

electron-plus-positron flux, which can be interpreted as the continuation of the PAMELA

excess to about 800 GeV. The quantification of these excesses is still quite

uncertain, not least because of relatively large systematic uncertainties. It is well

established that they cannot be explained by the standard mechanism, namely the secondary

production of positrons arising from collisions between cosmic-ray protons and the

interstellar medium within our galaxy. However, a very conventional astrophysical source

for them could be nearby pulsars.

On a more speculative level, these observations have inspired theorists to search for

pure particle-physics models that accommodate all results. Generically, interpretations

in terms of WIMP annihilation seem to be disfavoured, because they require a huge

clumpiness of the Milky Way dark-matter halo, which is at variance with recent numerical

simulations of the latter. This constraint is relaxed in superWIMP scenarios, where the

positrons may be produced in the decay of dark-matter particles (e.g. gravitinos).

It is clear that one of the keys to understanding the origin of the excess in the

positron fraction is the accurate, separate measurement of positron and electron fluxes,

which can be done with further PAMELA data and with the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer

satellite experiment. Furthermore, distinguishing different interpretations of the

observed excesses requires a multimessenger approach (i.e. to search for signatures in

the radio range, synchrotron radiation, neutrinos, antiprotons and gamma rays).

Fortunately the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope is in orbit and taking data (CERN Courier November

2008 p13). Together with other cosmic-ray experiments it will probe interesting

regions of parameter space in WIMP and superWIMP scenarios of dark matter.

Dark matter at colliders

Clearly, at colliders the existence of a dark-matter candidate can be inferred only

indirectly from the apparent missing energy, associated with the dark-matter particles,

in the final state of the collision. However, such a measurement can be made with

precision and under controlled conditions. To extract the properties, such as the mass,

of dark-matter particles, these final-state measurements have to be compared with

predictions from theoretical models. In a supersymmetric extension of the Standard Model,

for example, with the neutralino as the lightest superpartner, experiments at the LHC

would search for signatures from the cascade decay of gluinos and squarks into gluons,

quarks, leptons and neutralinos. This would show up as large missing transverse-energy in

events with some jets and leptons. The endpoints in kinematic distributions could then be

used for the determination of the dark-matter candidate’s mass, which could be compared

with the mass determined eventually by measurements of recoil energy in direct-detection


This complementarity between direct, indirect and collider searches for dark matter

is essential. Although collider experiments might identify a dark-matter candidate and

precisely measure its properties, they will not be able to distinguish a cosmologically

stable particle from one that is long-lived but unstable. In turn, direct detection

cannot tell definitely what kind of WIMP has been observed. Moreover, in many superWIMP

dark-matter scenarios a direct detection is impossible, while detection at the LHC may

be feasible. For example, if the lightest superpartner is a gravitino (or hidden

gaugino) and the next-to-lightest is a charged lepton, experiments at the LHC may search

for the striking signature of a displaced vertex plus an ionizing track.

In many cases, however, precision measurements from a future electron–positron

collider seem to be necessary to exploit fully the

collider–cosmology–astrophysics synergy. In addition “low-energy photon-

collider” experiments – such as the Axion-Like Particle Search at DESY, the GammeV

experiment at Fermilab and the Optical Search for QED magnetic birefringence, axions and

photo regeneration at CERN, where the interactions of intense laser beams with strong

electromagnetic fields are probed – may give viable insight into the existence of

very lightweight, axion-like, dark-matter candidates.

In summary, there is evidence for non-baryonic dark matter that is not made of any

known elementary particle. We are today in the exploratory stage to figure out its

microscopic nature. Many ideas are currently being explored in theories and in

experiments, and more will come. Nature has given us a few clues that we need to exploit.

The data coming soon from accelerators, and from direct and indirect detection

experiments, will be the final arbiter.

Further reading

For more information about the workshop, see

bright-rec iop pub iop-science physcis connect