Detecting Dark Matter

Dark matter was discovered 80 years ago when astronomer Fritz Zwicky spied a galaxy cluster whirling so fast, the galaxies were bound to fly apart unless something — something less luminous than ordinary stars or gas — held them together.

Decades later, the scientific community concedes the existence of dark matter, after many different kinds of experiments and simulations, but physicists still don't know what it is.

But confidence is growing. The last 15 years have seen the construction of several exotic detectors buried deep underground, and those detectors may be giving us our first view of what dark matter is made of. In January's cover story, Dan Hooper discusses these experiments, their results, and their most recent find: a seasonal variation in detections that indicate Earth might be moving through a WIMP wind as it orbits the Sun.

We summarize the underground experiments below. All of these experiments are continually increasing their detector mass, so the masses listed here are not fixed.

Guide to Dark Matter Experiments
ExperimentLocationDetectorStart DateResults
DAMA/
LIBRA
Gran Sasso, Italy250 kg sodium iodide crystals1998Thousands of events with annual variations
CDMS-II/
SuperCDMS
Soudan, MinnesotaCDMS-II:
4.5 kg germanium crystals
SuperCDMS:
9 kg germanium crystals
2003No claimed WIMP detections yet
CoGeNTSoudan, Minnesota500 g germanium crystal2004Hundreds of events with possible annual variations
CRESSTGran Sasso, Italy2.4 kg calcium-tungstate crystals2006Tens of events, possible WIMP signal
XENON-100Gran Sasso, Italy161 kg liquid xenon2009No claimed WIMP detections yet
LUXHomestake, South Dakota350 kg liquid xenon2011No science results yet
XMASSKamioka, Japan800 kg liquid xenon2011No science results yet