LEAD, S.D. — Nearly a mile underground in an abandoned gold mine, one of the most important quests in physics has come up empty-handed in the search for the elusive substance known as dark matter, scientists said Wednesday.
The most advanced Earth-based search for the mysterious material that has mass but cannot be seen turned up “absolutely no signal” of dark matter, said Richard Gaitskell of Brown University, a scientist working on the Large Underground Xenon experiment, or LUX. A detector attached to the International Space Station has so far failed to find any dark matter either.
Physicists released their initial findings after the experiment’s first few months at the Sanford Underground Research Facility, which was built in the former Homestake mine in the Black Hills.
With more than 4,800 feet of earth helping screen out background radiation, scientists tried to trap dark matter, which they hoped would be revealed in the form of weakly interacting massive particles, nicknamed WIMPS. The search, using the most sensitive equipment in the world, tried looking for the light fingerprint of a WIMP bouncing off an atomic nucleus of xenon cooled to minus 150 degrees.
But nothing was found. The team plans to keep looking for another year, and members are already planning a more sensitive experiment using a bigger tank of xenon.
Still, physicists were upbeat, noting that the results eliminated some theoretical candidates for dark matter. And there are many more theoretical models to search for.
“The short story is that we didn’t see dark matter interacting, but we had the most sensitive search for dark matter ever performed in the world,” said Daniel McKinsey, a Yale physicist.
The LUX experiment was 20 times more sensitive than any previous experiments, they said. The proposed next experiment would be 1,000 times more sensitive still.
The lab, at the end of an old mining tunnel filled with pipes and electric cables, is reached by a 10-minute ride in an elevator that once carried miners.
Essentially, scientists are searching for something they are fairly sure exists and is crucial to the entire universe. But they do not know what it looks like or where to find it.
“It’s ghost-like matter,” McKinsey said.
Researchers “are really searching in the dark in a way,” said Harvard physicist Avi Loeb, who is not part of the LUX team. “We have no clue. ”
Scientists are pretty sure dark matter exists, but they are not certain what it is made of or how it interacts with ordinary matter. It is considered vital to all the scientific theories explaining how the universe is expanding and how galaxies move and interact.