Dark Photons in Light Places

Title: “Searching for dark photon dark matter in LIGO O1 data”

Author: Huai-Ke Guo, Keith Riles, Feng-Wei Yang, & Yue Zhao

Reference: https://www.nature.com/articles/s42005-019-0255-0

There is very little we know about dark matter save for its existence. Its mass(es), its interactions, even the proposition that it consists of particles at all is mostly up to the creativity of the theorist. For those who don’t turn to modified theories of gravity to explain the gravitational effects on galaxy rotation and clustering that suggest a massive concentration of unseen matter in the universe (among other compelling evidence), there are a few more widely accepted explanations for what dark matter might be. These include weakly-interacting massive particles (WIMPS), primordial black holes, or new particles altogether, such as axions or dark photons. 

In particle physics, this latter category is what’s known as the “hidden sector,” a hypothetical collection of quantum fields and their corresponding particles that are utilized in theorists’ toolboxes to help explain phenomena such as dark matter. In order to test the validity of the hidden sector, several experimental techniques have been concocted to narrow down the vast parameter space of possibilities, which generally consist of three strategies:

  1. Direct detection: Detector experiments look for low-energy recoils of dark matter particle collisions with nuclei, often involving emitted light or phonons. 
  2. Indirect detection: These searches focus on potential decay products of dark matter particles, which depends on the theory in question.
  3. Collider production: As the name implies, colliders seek to produce dark matter in order to study its properties. This is reliant on the other two methods for verification.

The first detection of gravitational waves from a black hole merger in 2015 ushered in a new era of physics, in which the cosmological range of theory-testing is no longer limited to the electromagnetic spectrum. Bringing LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) to the table, proposals for the indirect detection of dark matter via gravitational waves began to spring up in the literature, with implications for primordial black hole detection or dark matter ensconced in neutron stars. Yet a new proposal, in a paper by Guo et. al., suggests that direct dark matter detection with gravitational waves may be possible, specifically in the case of dark photons. 

Dark photons are hidden sector particles in the ultralight regime of dark matter candidates. Theorized as the gauge boson of a U(1) gauge group, meaning the particle is a force-carrier akin to the photon of quantum electrodynamics, dark photons either do not couple or very weakly couple to Standard Model particles in various formulations. Unlike a regular photon, dark photons can acquire a mass via the Higgs mechanism. Since dark photons need to be non-relativistic in order to meet cosmological dark matter constraints, we can model them as a coherently oscillating background field: a plane wave with amplitude determined by dark matter energy density and oscillation frequency determined by mass. In the case that dark photons weakly interact with ordinary matter, this means an oscillating force is imparted. This sets LIGO up as a means of direct detection due to the mirror displacement dark photons could induce in LIGO detectors.

Figure 1: The experimental setup of the Advanced LIGO interferometer. We can see that light leaves the laser and is reflected between a few power recycling mirrors (PR), split by a beam splitter (BS), and bounced between input and end test masses (ITM and ETM). The entire system is mounted on seismically-isolated platforms to reduce noise as much as possible. Source: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1411.4547.pdf

LIGO consists of a Michelson interferometer, in which a laser shines upon a beam splitter which in turn creates two perpendicular beams. The light from each beam then hits a mirror, is reflected back, and the two beams combine, producing an interference pattern. In the actual LIGO detectors, the beams are reflected back some 280 times (down a 4 km arm length) and are split to be initially out of phase so that the photodiode detector should not detect any light in the absence of a gravitational wave. A key feature of gravitational waves is their polarization, which stretches spacetime in one direction and compresses it in the perpendicular direction in an alternating fashion. This means that when a gravitational wave passes through the detector, the effective length of one of the interferometer arms is reduced while the other is increased, and the photodiode will detect an interference pattern as a result. 

LIGO has been able to reach an incredible sensitivity of one part in 10^{23} in its detectors over a 100 Hz bandwidth, meaning that its instruments can detect mirror displacements up to 1/10,000th the size of a proton. Taking advantage of this number, Guo et. al. demonstrated that the differential strain (the ratio of the relative displacement of the mirrors to the interferometer’s arm length, or h = \Delta L/L) is also sensitive to ultralight dark matter via the modeling process described above. The acceleration induced by the dark photon dark matter on the LIGO mirrors is ultimately proportional to the dark electric field and charge-to-mass ratio of the mirrors themselves.

Once this signal is approximated, next comes the task of estimating the background. Since the coherence length is of order 10^9 m for a dark photon field oscillating at order 100 Hz, a distance much larger than the separation between the LIGO detectors at Hanford and Livingston (in Washington and Louisiana, respectively), the signals from dark photons at both detectors should be highly correlated. This has the effect of reducing the noise in the overall signal, since the noise in each of the detectors should be statistically independent. The signal-to-noise ratio can then be computed directly using discrete Fourier transforms from segments of data along the total observation time. However, this process of breaking up the data, known as “binning,” means that some signal power is lost and must be corrected for.

Figure 2: The end result of the Guo et. al. analysis of dark photon-induced mirror displacement in LIGO. Above we can see a plot of the coupling of dark photons to baryons as a function of the dark photon oscillation frequency. We can see that over further Advanced LIGO runs, up to O4-O5, these limits are expected to improve by several orders of magnitude. Source: https://www.nature.com/articles/s42005-019-0255-0

In applying this analysis to the strain data from the first run of Advanced LIGO, Guo et. al. generated a plot which sets new limits for the coupling of dark photons to baryons as a function of the dark photon oscillation frequency. There are a few key subtleties in this analysis, primarily that there are many potential dark photon models which rely on different gauge groups, yet this framework allows for similar analysis of other dark photon models. With plans for future iterations of gravitational wave detectors, further improved sensitivities, and many more data runs, there seems to be great potential to apply LIGO to direct dark matter detection. It’s exciting to see these instruments in action for discoveries that were not in mind when LIGO was first designed, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can come up with next!

Learn More:

  1. An overview of gravitational waves and dark matter: https://www.symmetrymagazine.org/article/what-gravitational-waves-can-say-about-dark-matter
  2. A summary of dark photon experiments and results: https://physics.aps.org/articles/v7/115 
  3. Details on the hardware of Advanced LIGO: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1411.4547.pdf
  4. A similar analysis done by Pierce et. al.: https://journals.aps.org/prl/pdf/10.1103/PhysRevLett.121.061102
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Amara McCune

Amara McCune is a PhD student in theoretical physics at UC Santa Barbara focusing on phenomenology. She has bachelor’s degrees in physics and mathematics from Stanford University, where she completed research projects in AMO, cosmology, and spent a summer at CERN as part of the University of Michigan REU program. Her current projects focus on parity solutions to the strong CP problem, and she is generally interested in cosmological applications to beyond the Standard Model (BSM) physics, including dark matter, the CMB, and inflation. She is passionate about both teaching and outreach and spent part of this past summer volunteering as a teaching fellow for the Mongolian Young Scholars Program (MYSP) in Ulaanbaatar.

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