A report from the ALICE experiment.
Photon-induced reactions are regularly studied in ultra-peripheral nucleus–nucleus collisions (UPCs) at the LHC. In these collisions, the accelerated ions, which carry a strong electromagnetic field, pass by each other with an impact parameter (the distance between their centres) larger than the sum of their nuclear radii. Hadronic interactions between nuclei are therefore strongly suppressed. At LHC energies, the photoproduction of charmonium (a bound state of charm and anti-charm quarks) in UPCs is sensitive to the gluon distributions in nuclei over a wide low Bjorken-x range. In particular, in coherent interactions, the photon emitted by one of the nuclei couples to the other nucleus as a whole, leaving it intact, while a J/ψ meson is emitted with a characteristic low transverse momentum (pT) of about 60 MeV, which is roughly of the order of the inverse of the nuclear radius.
Surprisingly, in 2016 ALICE measured an unexpectedly large yield of J/ψ mesons at very low pT in peripheral, not ultra-peripheral, PbPb collisions at a centre-of-mass energy of 2.76 TeV. The excess with respect to expectations from hadronic J/ψ-meson production was interpreted as the first indication of coherent photoproduction of J/ψ mesons in PbPb collisions with nuclear overlap. This effect comes with many theoretical challenges. For instance, how can the coherence condition survive in the photon–nucleus interaction if the latter is broken up during the hadronic collision? Do only the non-interacting spectator nucleons participate in the coherent process? Can the photoproduced J/ψ meson be affected by interactions with the formed and fast-expanding quark–gluon plasma (QGP) created in nucleus–nucleus collisions? Recent theoretical developments on the subject are based on calculations for UPCs in which the J/ψ meson photoproduction-cross section is computed as the product of an effective photon flux and an effective photonuclear cross section for the process γPb → J/ψPb, with both terms usually modified to account for the nuclear overlap.
The ALICE experiment has recently measured the coherently photoproduced J/ψ mesons in PbPb collisions at a centre-of-mass energy of 5.02 TeV, using the full Run 2 data sample. The measurement is performed at forward rapidity (2.5 < y < 4) in the dimuon decay channel. For the first time, a significant (> 5σ) coherently photoproduced J/ψ-meson signal is observed even in semi-central PbPb collisions. In figure 1, the coherently photoproduced J/ψ cross section is shown as a function of the mean number of nucleons participating in the hadronic interaction (<Npart>). In this representation, the most central head-on PbPb collisions correspond to large <Npart> values close to 400. The photoproduced J/ψ cross section does not exhibit a strong dependence on collision centrality (i.e. on the amount of nuclear overlap) within the current experimental precision. A UPC-like model (the red line in figure 1) reproduces the semi-central to central PbPb data if a modified photon flux and photonuclear cross section to account for the nuclear overlap are included.
To clarify the theory behind this experimental observation of coherent J/ψ photoproduction, the upcoming Run 3 data will be crucial in several aspects. ALICE expects to collect a much larger data sample, thereby measuring a statistically significant signal in most central collisions. At midrapidity, the larger data sample and the excellent momentum resolution of the detector will allow for pT-differential cross-section measurements, which will shed light on the role of spectator nucleons for the coherence condition. By extending the coherently photo-produced J/ψ cross-section measurement towards most central PbPb collisions, ALICE will study the possible interaction of these charmonia with the QGP. Photoproduced J/ψ mesons could therefore turn out to be a completely new probe of the charmonium dissociation in the QGP.
ALICE Collab. 2022 arXiv:2204.10684.