Press Room

Additional information related to the CDMS experiment

What is dark matter?
Judging by the way galaxies rotate, scientists have known for 70 years that the matter we can see does not provide enough gravitational pull to hold the galaxies together. There must exist some form of matter that does not emit or reflect light. Ordinary matter (made of quarks) makes up only 15% of the matter contents in the universe. An unknown form of dark matter makes up 85%. (In terms of the full matter and energy content of the universe, ordinary matter contributes 4%, dark matter makes up 23% and dark energy represents 73%.)

Most of the ordinary matter is invisible, too. It exists across the universe in form of hydrogen, dust clouds and very dim clumps of matter called massive compact halo objects. These MACHOs include planets and cold dead stars like brown dwarfs and black holes.

Neutrinos, very light particles left over from the big bang in massive quantities, make up a small amount of the dark matter that is not made of quarks. WIMPs, or weakly interactive massive particles, may make up the rest. Neutrinos move at nearly the speed of light. That’s why they are considered "hot dark matter."

What is a WIMP?
Weakly interactive massive particles may make up most of the dark matter, if they have a mass of 10 to 10,000 times the mass of the proton. They only interact with ordinary matter via gravity and a weak force (not the strong or electromagnetic force), so they only disturb atoms when they collide with a nucleus. Atoms contain mostly empty space, so this rarely happens. As many as 10 trillion WIMPs should pass through one kilogram of the Earth in a second but perhaps as few as one per day will interact.

What is supersymmetry?
The Standard Model describes all of the particles and forces in the universe, but it does not adequately explain the origin of mass. To solve this problem, in 1982 some theorists proposed an extension to the Standard Model where every mass particle (the quark, electron, etc) and every force-carrying particle (the photon, graviton, etc.) has an associated "superpartner" that differs only in its spin and mass. Since we have not yet detected superpartners, they must be much more massive than the particles observed so far.

The lightest neutral supersymmetric particle is the neutralino. With an expected mass of 50-1,000 billion electron volts (GeV) – the mass of a proton is 1 GeV — and weak interaction with everyday matter, the neutralino is a prime candidate for being a WIMP.

If it is a WIMP, it travels through the universe at 1/1000 the speed of light, making it "cold dark matter." Neutralinos were produced at the beginning of the universe but exist in fewer numbers than the neutrino because their great mass makes them harder to produce, and they annihilate each other. Both types of particles pass through the Earth in large quantities.

How does the CDMS experiment work?
The experimental set-up for the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search contains five towers of detectors. Each tower contains germanium for detecting dark matter and silicon to distinguish WIMPs from neutrons. The CDMS towers have a total of four kilograms of germanium. Supersymmetry models predict that only a few WIMPs per year, one per day at most, will interact with the detectors. The biggest challenge involves sorting them from background interactions due to electrons, neutrons, and gamma rays.

When a WIMP hits a germanium nucleus, the nucleus recoils and vibrates the whole germanium crystal. This warms the thin aluminum and tungsten outer layers, which an electrical circuit measures. Photons and electrons, however, strike the germanium's electrons. A charge collection plate measures ionization resulting from this type of collision and uses it to separate these interactions from those of WIMPs. The ratio of charge to heat for each event tells whether a particle struck the nucleus, as WIMPs do, or simply rattled the electrons surrounding the nucleus, as most background particles do.

Incoming neutrons also strike the germanium nucleus, so they more closely resemble WIMPs. The germanium detectors sit in a stack with detectors made of silicon. A silicon atom has a smaller nucleus, and so will be hit less frequently by WIMPs. The strong nuclear force does not affect WIMPs, but it does affect neutrons and so neutrons will hit nuclei of different sizes at about the same rate. A higher collision rate in the germanium than the silicon will indicate the interaction of WIMPs.

Why is the CDMS experiment underground?
Cosmic rays hit the surface of the Earth and the reactions produce neutrons. Placing the detectors deep underground shields them from most of the cosmic rays that would produce neutrons.

Why are the CDMS detectors so cold?
A cryostat cools the detectors to 40 millikelvin (thousandths of a degree above absolute zero.) This reduces the background vibrations of the detector's atoms and makes them more sensitive to individual particle collisions.

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last modified 02/22/2008   email Fermilab