Tuesday, 12 August 2014

X-ray bananas

This year's discoveries follow the well-known 5-stage Kübler-Ross pattern: 1) announcement, 2) excitement, 3) debunking, 4) confusion, 5) depression.  While BICEP is approaching the end of the cycle, the sterile neutrino dark matter signal reported earlier this year is now entering stage 3. This is thanks to yesterday's paper entitled Dark matter searches going bananas by Tesla Jeltena and Stefano Profumo (to my surprise, this is not the first banana in a physics paper's title).

In the previous episode, two independent analyses  using public data from XMM and Chandra satellites concluded the presence of an  anomalous 3.55 keV monochromatic emission from galactic clusters and Andromeda. One possible interpretation is a 7.1 keV sterile neutrino dark matter decaying to a photon and a standard neutrino. If the signal could be confirmed and conventional explanations (via known atomic emission lines) could be excluded, it would mean we are close to solving the dark matter puzzle.

It seems this is not gonna happen. The new paper makes two claims:

  1. Limits from x-ray observations of the Milky Way center exclude the sterile neutrino interpretation of the reported signal from galactic clusters. 
  2. In any case, there's no significant anomalous emission line from galactic clusters near 3.55 keV.       

Let's begin with the first claim. The authors analyze several days of XMM observations of the Milky Way center. They find that the observed spectrum can be very well fit by known plasma emission lines. In particular, all spectral features near 3.5 keV are accounted for if Potassium XVIII lines at 3.48 and 3.52 keV are included in the fit. Based on that agreement, they can derive strong bounds on the parameters of the sterile neutrino dark matter model: the mixing angle between the sterile and the standard neutrino should satisfy sin^2(2θ) ≤ 2*10^-11. This excludes the parameter space favored by the previous detection of the 3.55 keV line in  galactic clusters.  The conclusions are similar, and even somewhat stronger, as in the earlier analysis using Chandra data.

This is disappointing but not a disaster yet, as there are alternative dark matter models (e.g. axions converting to photons in the magnetic field of a galaxy) that do not predict observable emission lines from our galaxy. But there's one important corollary of the new analysis. It seems that the inferred strength of the Potassium XVIII lines compared to the strength of other atomic lines does not agree well with theoretical models of plasma emission. Such models were an important ingredient in the previous analyses that found the signal. In particular, the original 3.55 keV detection paper assumed upper limits on the strength of the Potassium XVIII line derived from the observed strength of the Sulfur XVI line. But the new findings suggest that systematic errors may have been underestimated.  Allowing for a higher flux of Potassium XVIII, and also including the 3.51 Chlorine XVII line (that was missed in the previous analyses), one can a obtain a good fit to the observed x-ray spectrum from galactic clusters, without introducing a dark matter emission line. Right... we suspected something was smelling bad here, and now we know it was chlorine... Finally, the new paper reanalyses the x-ray spectrum from Andromeda, but it disagrees with the previous findings:  there's a hint of the 3.53 keV anomalous emission line from Andromeda, but its significance is merely 1 sigma.

So, the putative dark matter signals are dropping like flies these days. We urgently need new ones to replenish my graph ;)

Note added: While finalizing this post I became aware of today's paper that, using the same data, DOES find a 3.55 keV line from the Milky Way center.  So we're already at stage 4... seems that the devil is in the details how you model the potassium lines (which, frankly speaking, is not reassuring).