Probing quark–gluon plasma with charmed mesons

Average RAA

The ALICE collaboration has released a new measurement of the production of D0, D+, D*+ and Ds+ mesons, which contain a charm quark, in lead–lead (PbPb) collisions at a centre-of-mass energy per nucleon pair (sNN) of 5.02 TeV. These measurements probe the propagation of charm quarks in the quark–gluon plasma (QGP) produced in high-energy heavy-ion collisions. Charm quarks are produced early in the collision and subsequently experience the whole system evolution, losing part of their energy via inelastic (gluon radiation) or elastic (“collisional”) scattering processes. The charm quarks emerge from the collision in D mesons, which are identified by their characteristic decays.

The result is reported in terms of the nuclear modification factor (RAA), which is the ratio between the measured pT distribution in heavy-ion and proton–proton (pp) collisions, scaled by the average number of binary nucleon–nucleon collisions in each nuclear collision. The figure shows the average RAA of non-strange D mesons (D0, D+, D*+) and strange (D+s) mesons in central (0–10%) PbPb collisions. For the non-strange mesons, a minimum of RAA ≈ 0.2 for pT = 6–10 GeV/c indicates a significant energy loss for charm quarks. The RAA is compatible with that of charged particles for pT > 8 GeV/c, while it is larger at lower pT. The comparison to light-flavour hadrons helps to study the colour-charge and quark-mass dependence of the in-medium parton energy loss.

The RAA of Ds+ mesons is larger than that of non-strange D mesons. Though the experimental uncertainty is still large, such a difference would suggest that charm quarks also form hadrons by recombining with the surrounding light quarks in the QGP. This mechanism differs from the fragmentation process that is thought to be the main hadronisation mechanism in the absence of a medium. The recombination mechanism enhances the yield of particles with strangeness because strange quarks are copiously produced in the QGP.

The RAA at LHC Run 2 is compatible with that measured at a lower centre-of-mass energy per nucleon pair of 2.76 TeV, but the larger collected data sample at Run 2 made it possible to reduce the uncertainties by a factor of about two. A similar suppression at the two energies is expected by the “Djordjevic model” (figure, right) due to the combination of a stronger suppression in the denser medium and a harder pT distribution at 5.02 TeV with respect to 2.76 TeV.

The next PbPb run at the end of 2018, and the subsequent upgrade of the ALICE detector, will allow us to improve the measurement. This will shed further light on the energy loss and hadronisation of heavy quarks in the QGP and allow researchers to determine the transport coefficients describing the scattering power of the QGP and the diffusion of charm quarks in the medium.

Further reading

ALICE Collaboration 2018 arXiv:1804.09083.