The first run of a new dark matter experiment turns up nothing — but that still tells us something.

white and gold interior of LUX detector
This view looks up into the LZ Outer Detector, which is used to veto radioactivity that can mimic a dark matter signal.
Matthew Kapust / Sanford Underground Research Facility

The first run of the most sensitive dark matter detector in the world has come up empty. Sixty days’ worth of data-taking by the LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) experiment failed to show evidence for the mysterious stuff, scientists revealed at a July 7th webinar.

Based on observations of galactic rotation, gravitational lensing, and the cosmic microwave background, astrophysicists conclude that no less than 85% of all gravitating matter in the universe cannot be composed of familiar atoms and molecules. Instead, this invisible (and transparent) dark matter is believed to consist of as-yet undetected elementary particles that do not fit in our current Standard Model of particle physics.

The problem is, they’re extremely difficult to catch, since they hardly interact with “normal” matter at all. One such weakly interacting massive particle (WIMP) would pass unhindered through 10 million light-years of solid lead before hitting an atomic nucleus, explains LZ spokesperson Hugh Lippincott (University of California, Santa Barbara).

Then again, billions of relatively heavy-weight dark matter particles should pass through your body each and every second, so an extremely sensitive detector might be able to succeed in registering rare interaction events every now and then.

LZ, located in the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) near Lead, South Dakota, uses 7 tons of liquid xenon to look for dark matter. The purified xenon is carefully shielded from all possible sources of background noise, such as cosmic rays and radioactive decay. Almost 500 photomultiplier tubes are on the lookout for the tiny flashes of light that would result, should a WIMP crash into a xenon nucleus.

In a paper posted on the LZ website, the collaboration of some 250 researchers from 35 institutes in four countries (the USA, the United Kingdom, Portugal, and Korea) present their analysis of the first 60-day science run, which commenced late last year. The bottom line: Everything works as expected, or even slightly better, but the instrument didn’t detect any WIMPs.

white, larger-than-person-size detector at the center of LUX
The LZ central detector in the clean room at Sanford Underground Research Facility after assembly, before beginning its journey underground.
Matthew Kapust / Sanford Underground Research Facility

Not yet, that is. “We plan to collect about 20 times more data in the coming years,” Lippincott said in a press statement, “so we’re only getting started. There’s a lot of science to do and it’s very exciting!”

“It’s a bit of a pity of course,” says Auke-Pieter Colijn (Nikhef Dutch National Institute for Subatomic Physics), who is the technical coordinator of a competing dark matter detector in Italy, “but it’s not unexpected. You start with a brief run to show that everything works fine. You’d have to be extremely lucky to secure a detection right away.”

The Italian detector, known as XENONnT, has also completed its first 100-day run. Data analysis is in full swing; Colijn expects the results to be presented within a few months at most.

If the current generation of xenon-based detectors won’t find any evidence for WIMPs, a much larger and more sensitive instrument might. Last month, three international collaborations (XENON, LZ, and DARWIN) announced they would join forces in designing (and hopefully building) “one more xenon experiment to rule them all,” as LZ physics coordinator Aaron Manalaysay (Lawrence Berkeley Lab) puts it. The dark matter hunters aren’t giving up just yet.


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Mark Holm

July 11, 2022 at 5:52 am

Alternate title:
No WIMPS in South Dakota, yet.

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July 11, 2022 at 7:41 am

Another interesting experiment searching for what DM could be. It seems experimental science looking for DM, keeps failing unlike this report,, tetraquark. We can find neutrinos, electrons, protons, quarks, tetraquarks but no DM particle.

How many negative experimental tests are required to falsify the DM interpretation of various light curves (example, spiral galaxy rotation) used to support DM, far, far away? It seems presently, DM identification right here on Earth keeps failing.

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July 16, 2022 at 9:57 am

I read an interesting article by a professor who stated that if you avoid using the premise that the proton is a point in space, then solving the Dirac equations provides two solutions to the hydrogen electron spin, which means there could be twice the amount of neutral diatomic hydrogen as supposed based upon the 21 cm signal. Neutral diatomic hydrogen would be transparent to photons.
If DM only feels gravity, then why would it not be filling up the cores of stars and planets? Why would it be present in some galaxies and not others?

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Monica Young

July 18, 2022 at 12:43 pm

The question of why dark matter isn't filling up stars and planets is a great one! By the way dark matter behaves, it appears to be collisionless. The way that stars and planets are made involves a LOT of small collisions. Dark matter does become more dense at the centers of galaxies due to gravitational interactions, but I don't think it can condense on the timescale on which stars and planets are made.

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January 1, 2023 at 9:48 pm

Sometimes we have to believe our test intruments. 1. Dark matter is not colliding with anything. 2. Dark matter becomes more dense at the center of galaxies. 3. We do not understand how gravity or light is propogated. 4. We have no idea where 85% of the mass is 5. The modern concept of the vacuum of space, confirmed every day by experiment, is a relativistic ether. But we do not call it this because it is taboo.

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January 1, 2023 at 9:53 pm

Please credit 5. to Physicist Robert B. Laughlin

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July 19, 2022 at 8:21 am

Wonder why Xenon prices have quadrupled in recent years (assuming you can even obtain it)? This is where its' all going. If the experiments ultimately prove unsuccessful, will they give it back?

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