- The UHECRs Composition Problem: Evidence for a New Physics at 100 TeV?
By Nimrod Shaham and Tsvi Piran
First the basics: We're talking about the ultra-high energetic end of the cosmic ray spectrum, with total energies of about 106 TeV. That's the energy of the incident particles in the Earth rest frame, not the center-of-mass energy of their collision with air molecules (ie mostly nucleons), which is "only" of the order 10 TeV, and thus somewhat larger than what the LHC delivers.
After the primary collision, the incoming particles produce a cascade of secondary particles, known as a "cosmic ray shower" which can be detected on the ground. These showers are then reconstructed from the data with suitable software so that, ideally, the physics of the initial high energy collison can be extracted. For some more details on cosmic ray showers, please read this earlier post.
|Cosmic ray shower, artist's impression. Source: ASPERA|
The Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory is a currently running experiment that measures cosmic ray showers on the ground. One relevant quantity about the cosmic rays is the "penetration depth," that is the distance the primary particle travels through the atmosphere till it makes the first collision. The penetration depth can be reconstructed if the shower on the ground can be measured sufficiently precise, and is relatively new data.
The penetration depth depends on the probability of the primary particle to interact, and with that on the nature of the particle. While we have never actually tested the collisions at the center-of-mass energies of the highest energetic cosmic rays, we think we have a pretty good understanding of what's going on by virtue of the standard model of particle physics. All the knowledge that we have, based on measurements at lower energies, is incorporated into the numerical models. Since the collisions involve nucleons rather than elementary particles, this goes together with an extrapolation of the parton distribution function by the DGLAP equation. This sounds complicated, but since QCD is asymptotically free, it should actually get easier to understand at high energies.
Shaham and Piran in their paper argue that this extrapolation isn't working as expected, which might be a signal for new physics.
The reason is that the penetration depth data shows that at high energies the probability of the incident particles to interact peaks at a shorter depth and is also more strongly peaked than one expects for protons. Now it might be that at higher energies the cosmic rays are dominated by other primary particles, heavier ones, that are more probable to interact, thus moving the peak of the distribution to a shorter depth. However, if one adds a contribution from other constituents (heavier ions: He, Fe...) this also smears out the distribution over the depth, and thus doesn't fit the width of the observed penetration depth distribution.
This can be seen very well from the figure below (Fig 2 from Shaham and Piran's paper) which shows the data from the Pierre Auger Collaboration, and the expectation for a composition of protons and Fe nuclei. You can see that adding a second component does have the desired effect of moving the average value to a shorter depth. But it also increases the width. (And, if the individual peaks can be resolved, produces a double-peak structure.)
|Fig 2 from arXiv:1204.1488. Shown is the number of events in the energy bin 1 to 1.25 x 106 TeV as a function of the penetration depth. The red dots are the data from the Pierre Auger Collaboration (arXiv:1107.4804), the solid blue line is the expectation for a combination of protons and Fe nuclei.|
"There are three possible solutions to this puzzling situation. First, the observational data might be incorrect, or it is somehow dominated by poor statistics: these results are based on about 1500 events at the lowest energy bin and about 50 at the highest one. A mistake in the shower simulations is unlikely, as different simulations give comparable results. However, the simulations depend on the extrapolations of the proton cross sections from the measured energies to the TeV range of the UHECR collisions. It is possible that this extrapolation breaks down. In particular a larger cross section than the one extrapolated from low energies can explain the shorter penetration depth. This may indicates new physics that set in at energies of several dozen TeV."The authors are very careful not to jump to conclusions, and I won't either. To be convinced there is new physics to find here, I would first like to see a quantification of how bad the best fit from the models actually is. Unfortunately, there's no chi-square/dof in the paper that would allow such a quantification, and as illustrative as the figure above is, it's only one energy bin and might be a misleading visualization. I am also not at all sure that the different simulations are actually independent from each other. Since scientific communities exchange information rapidly and efficiently, there exists a risk for systematic bias even if several models are considered. Possibly there's just some cross-section missing or wrong. Finally, there's nothing in the paper about how the penetration depth data is obtained to begin with. Since that's not a primary observable, there must be some modeling involved too, though I agree that this isn't a likely source of error.
With these words of caution ahead, it is possible that we are looking here at the first evidence for physics beyond the standard model.