Evidence from the depths of the Universe has ruled out a number of models for what the mysterious dark matter might be, but one candidate that fits so far is the lightest supersymmetric particle (LSP) otherwise known as the “neutralino”, the lightest of a whole range of new particles suggested by a theory called supersymmetry. If the neutralino exists it will likely be stable, heavy, neutral, and will not interact electromagnetically. This makes it a perfect candidate for a substance that pervades the universe without being spotted.
If supersymmetric particles exist, they are very likely to be produced in collisions in the LHC. The heavy particles will decay into combinations of leptons (like electrons and muons) and quarks (which will cause sprays of particles called jets) as well as into neutralinos that will not decay any further. Therefore many neutralinos will pass through the CMS detector, without depositing any energy or leaving a trail.
So how do you detect an “invisible” particle? CMS will be able to find the neutralino indirectly – by identifying when the energy used to make it goes missing.
Momentum in equals momentum out…
One of the most fundamental laws of physics is that ‘momentum is conserved’. In other words, the total momentum before a collision is equal to the total momentum after. If the total momentum of the observed particles that emerge from a proton-proton collision does not equal the momentum of the two protons, we can deduce there must be an invisible particle somewhere that carried away that missing momentum.
As we collect all the particles we can also add up their momenta and energies (in the “transverse” direction, i.e. at right angles to the beam line) and reconstruct the entire collision; like building a giant jigsaw puzzle. When a neutralino is formed and we can’t detect it we see an imbalance in the collision, with particles flying out one side but not the other and the energy not adding up. This shows up as a hole in the jigsaw puzzle: a missing particle seen through its missing energy or momentum.
The CMS is “hermetic” when it comes to finding missing particles. This means that, to the extent possible, it catches every detectable particle emerging from a collision. Large detectors have “channels for escape”, regions where particles cannot be detected because of cables or other mechanical support. These regions must be minimised to ensure that standard particles can't slip by undetected. This way, if the energy or momentum is "missing", it really is due to an invisible particle.
To search for this missing energy, it is important that the CMS has a good hadron calorimeter as well as detectors at every angle around the beam line. To ensure that particles flying from all directions will be detected, this includes the very shallow angles known as the “forward region”.