Kaon physics at a turning point

21 November 2023
Participants from the NA62 (left), LHCb (middle) and KOTO (right) experiments discussed the future of Kaon experiments. Credit: CERN-PHOTO-201909-262-3, CERN-PHOTO-202204-063-1, KOTO, K Bernhard-Novotny

Only two experiments worldwide are dedicated to the study of rare kaon decays: NA62 at CERN and KOTO at J-PARC in Japan. NA62 plans to conclude its efforts in 2025, and both experiments are aiming to reach important milestones on this timescale. The future experimental landscape for kaon physics beyond this date is by no means clear, however. With proposals for next-generation facilities such as HIKE at CERN and KOTO-II at J-PARC currently under scrutiny, more than 100 kaon experts met at CERN from 11 to 14 September for a hybrid workshop to take stock of the experimental and theoretical opportunities in kaon physics in the coming decades.

Kaons, which contain one strange and either a lighter up or down quark, have played a central role in the development of the Standard Model (SM). Augusto Ceccucci (CERN) pointed out that many of the SM’s salient features – including flavour mixing, parity violation, the charm quark and CP violation – were discovered through the study of kaons, leading to the Cabibbo-Kobayashi-Maskawa (CKM) quark mixing matrix. The full particle content of the SM was finally experimentally established at CERN with the Higgs-boson discovery in 2012, but many open questions remain.

The kaon’s special role in this context was the central topic of the workshop. The study of rare kaon decays provides a unique sensitivity to new physics, up to  scales higher than those at collider experiments. In the SM, the rare decay of a charged or neutral kaon into a pion plus a pair of charged or neutral leptons is strongly suppressed, even more so than the similar rare B-meson decays. This is due to the absence at tree-level of flavour-changing neutral current interactions (e.g. s → d) in the SM. Such a transition can only proceed at loop level involving the creation of at least one very heavy (virtual) electroweak gauge boson (figure “Decayed”, left). While experimentally this suppression constitutes a formidable challenge in identifying the decay products amongst a variety of background signals, new-physics contributions could leave a significantly measurable imprint through tree-level or virtual contributions. In contrast to rare B decays, the “gold-plated” rare kaon decay channels K+→π+νν and KL→π0νν do not suffer from large hadronic uncertainties and are experimentally clean due to the limited number of possible decay channels.


The charged-kaon decay is currently being studied at NA62, and a measurement of its branching ratio with a precision of 15% is expected by 2025. However, as highlighted by NA62 physics coordinator Karim Massri (Lancaster University), to improve this measurement and thus significantly increase the  likelihood of a discovery, the experimental precision must be reduced to the level of the theoretical prediction, i.e. 5%. This can only be achieved with a next-generation experiment. The HIKE experiment, a proposed high-intensity kaon factory at CERN currently under approval, would reach the 5% precision goal on the measurement of K+→π+νν during its first phase of operation. experiment, a future high-intensity kaon factory at CERN currently under approval, will reach the 5% precision goal on the measurement of K+→π+νν during its first phase of operation. Afterwards, a second phase with a neutral KL beam aiming at the first observation of the very rare decays KL→π0+ is foreseen. With a setup and detectors optimised for the measurement of the most challenging processes, the HIKE programme would be able to achieve unprecedented precision on most K+ and KL decays.

For KOTO, Koji Shimi and Hashime Nanjo reported on the experimental progress on KL→π0+ and presented a new bound on its branching ratio. A planned phase two of KOTO, if funded, aims to measure the branching ratio with a precision of 20%. Although principally designed for the study of (rare) bottom-quark decays, LHCb can also provide information about the rare decay of the shorter-lived KS.Radoslav Marchevski (EPFL Lausanne) presented the status and the prospects for a proposed LHCb-Phase II upgrade.

From the theory perspective, underpinned by impressive new perturbative, lattice QCD and effective-field-theory calculations presented at the workshop, the planned measurement of K+→π+νν at HIKE clearly has discovery potential, remarked Gino Isidori (University of Zurich). Together with other rare decay channels such as KL→μ+μ, KL→π0+ and K+→π++that would be measured by HIKE, added Giancarlo D’Ambrosio (INFN), the combined global theory analyses of experimental data will allow for discovering new physics if it exists within the reach of the experiment, and for providing solid constraints for new physics.

A decision on HIKE and other proposed experiments in CERN’s North Area will take place in early December.

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