UK detector might be our 'last-chance saloon' to find Wimps

Scientists have warned that we could be running out of time to unlock the secrets of dark matter if Wimps can't be definitively detected soon. A new UK detector could be our "last chance" to do so.
Christopher McFadden
This detector could be the last chance to find Wimps.


British quantum physicists have warned that we are fast approaching the "last chance saloon" to uncover the secrets of dark matter. Small particles, called weakly interacting massive particles (WImps for short), are currently believed to be the source of dark matter, but they have, to date, proved very elusive indeed.

Dark matter is thought to constitute around 85 percent of all mass in the universe, but little is known about it. Dark matter differs from regular matter because it doesn't interact with electromagnetic forces. As a result, it doesn't absorb, reflect, or emit light, which makes it incredibly difficult to detect. To date, scientists have only been able to infer the existence of dark matter by observing its gravitational impact on visible matter. They are also at a loss regarding what it is made of. Wimps are our current best guess.

Last-chance saloon

“We are entering the last-chance saloon to show that these particles are the cause of dark matter, and we want to make sure Britain is at the heart of that work by building the final generation of these detectors,” physicist Professor Chamkaur Ghag of University College London told the Observer.

To help figure this out for certain, British scientists want to build a giant international particle detector 3,000 feet (914 meters) underground in Boulby in North Yorkshire, England. This location already hosts an underground research center that conducts experiments related to materials, environment, and other topics. The scientists have also previously conducted dark matter particle detection experiments in this location.

Detecting Wimps, however, is problematic as they rarely interact with ordinary matter. But scientists have developed increasingly sensitive detectors that can identify the faint flashes of light that may be produced when a Wimp collides with the nucleus of a Xenon atom. Despite placing these instruments in deep underground locations to shield them from cosmic rays and other particles that bombard Earth's surface, no Wimps have been found after 20 years of searching.

“We are getting near the end of the road in the hunt for Wimps,” said Ghag. “If we don’t detect them with the current detectors, then Wimps will be in trouble – and the next generation will take us to the limit of our ability to spot them clearly," he added.

Ghag also explained that when detectors reach a certain level of sensitivity – as will be reached with the next generation of devices – the signals they might start picking up from Wimps would be confused with signals from other particles such as neutrinos. This limit is known as the "neutrino fog."

“We have a couple more years to collect data from the current generation of detectors,” added Ghag. “We might find Wimps in that time. Certainly, I hope we do. If not, we will have one more chance. That will come in the form of the next generation of detectors that could detect Wimps down to the point of encountering the neutrino fog," he added.

Technology coming home

“The technology behind the xenon detectors that everyone uses to search for Wimps was pioneered in Britain, so it would be fitting that this country finalizes the hunt," Paling added.

“Over the next two years, we will be gathering schedule information, details of laboratory design, and projected costs,” explained Paling. “We will also be talking to the government while trying to get a better picture of what other governments think about the project. Nothing has been agreed yet about funding, but we will be ready in a couple of years," he said.

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