Quantum Mechanics

CERN's Jury-Rigged Solar Telescope Is On The Lookout For A Dark Matter Particle

In 2012, researchers at CERN announced the discovery of the Higgs boson, the final piece of the puzzle of the Standard Model of particle physics. But scientists being what they are, that answer only meant more questions. How do the subatomic particles of the Standard Model pull together to form larger particles? And where does dark matter come from? A hypothetical particle called the axion could answer both questions, and CERN has rigged a telescope pointed towards the sun in hopes they can find one.


Making Sense Of A Mysterious Matter

Axions are a part of a currently hypothetical extension of the Standard Model known as supersymmetry, which predicts a slew of as-yet unobserved particles with very specific properties. Axions were first proposed to solve the problem of how quarks and gluons clump together into protons and neutrons, but a new predictive model suggests that if they are real, they could also account for dark matter, the mysterious stuff that makes up about 80 percent of the mass of the universe. But since it (and the rest of the superparticles predicted by supersymmetry) remains undiscovered, our understanding of physics remains incomplete and hazy.

The thing is, dark matter is teetering on the brink of hypothetical itself. Though new developments have allowed us to visualize the dark matter by measuring its effect on spinning galaxies, we still have no idea what the stuff actually is. So if the axion turned out to fit the bill, it could explain a whole lot about the universe. But if dark matter is by definition unobservable, how are we supposed to track its particles down? Fortunately, under certain circumstances, axions will transform into visible photons. That's why CERN is on the case.

Related: Astronomers Now Have An Image Of The Dark Matter Web They Always Thought Was There

How To Shine A Light On Dark Matter

The key to the new research is the fact that a powerful magnetic field would theoretically convert photons into axions and vice-versa. So the researchers came up with the CERN Axion Solar Telescope, which repurposes magnets from the particle accelerator and points them towards the sun. The whole operation is a bit jury-rigged for now, but as scientists have begun to cut down on the background noise, what they've discovered should inform the next generation of axion-hunting technology.

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