Today we saw the first physics results from the AMS-02 collaboration. AMS is a particle detector attached to the International Space Station where it collects more than 10 billion cosmic ray events per year. The data released today concern the energy spectrum of cosmic ray positrons. Before discussing the AMS results it's worth taking a historical detour to understand the wider context.
The Universe we see is made of matter, but some small amounts of antimatter are being constantly produced by all sorts of violent processes: the scattering of high energy cosmic rays on the interstellar medium, the creation of electron-positron pairs in the electromagnetic field of pulsars, proton-proton collisions at the LHC, etc. Another possible production mechanism is annihilation of dark matter in the center of our galaxy, hence the interest of particle physicists in the subject. Dark matter may show up as an excess of high-energy positrons over the background predicted from common astrophysical processes. Assuming we understand the background.
Until a few years ago the common lore was that the dominant production of positrons in our galaxy is via the scattering of high energy cosmic protons off particles in the galactic disc. This predicts the positron fraction decreasing with energy. For this reason, when back in summer 2008 PAMELA reported a sharp rise of the positron fraction between 10 and 100 GeV we thought for a moment we had a smoking-gun signal of dark matter. Later, the Fermi satellite confirmed the excess and showed that the rise extends at least up to 200 GeV. However, now we don't consider the excess an evidence of dark matter. One reason is that models of dark matter that quantitatively explain the PAMELA and Fermi signal are rather baroque. Firstly, one needs a large annihilation cross section, of order 10^-24 cm^3/sec, 2 orders of magnitude larger than the one required for dark matter to be a thermal relic. Moreover, dark matter needs to annihilate mostly into leptons and, unlike what happens in typical models, very little into hadrons (as no excess in the cosmic ray antiproton spectrum is observed). Another reason for skepticism is that any dark matter model explaining PAMELA and Fermi is in tension with constraints on the gamma ray flux from the galactic center and from the dwarf galaxies. In the meantime, astrophysicists went back to the drawing board and proposed more ordinary sources of high energy positrons. The current lore is that a few nearby pulsars could be responsible for the observed rise of the positron fraction. Thus, after the initial excitement, things have settled down in a limbo: we're sure the positron excess is real, but we cannot prove that it's a signature of dark matter, and neither we can prove that it isn't.
So, what have we learned today? Qualitatively, not much, quantitatively, a bit. AMS, with its full-fledged multi purpose detector, has better particle identification capabilities compared to the previous missions, which allows them to reduce systematic errors in the positron fraction down to 1% at low energies (compared to 2% in PAMELA) and explore a larger energy range. Currently, their positron measurement extends up to 350 GeV, so almost a factor of 2 beyond the highest data point from Fermi. AMS shows that the rise continues at least up to 250 GeV. The flux of high energy positrons seems to be isotropic, although their current constraints on the dipole component do not yet exclude a local (pulsar) origin of the positron flux. They also see a hint of flattening of the positron fraction above 250 GeV, although at this point this is not significant. If the positron excess originates from annihilation of dark matter particles with the mass of several hundred GeV one should see a drop in the positron spectrum at energies above the dark matter mass, but it is not said pulsars or other astrophysical phenomena could not produce a similar drop. (Note also that a sharp drop in the positron spectrum will typically be accompanied by a similar feature in the electron+positron spectrum, but according to the measurements by Fermi nothing dramatic is happening up to 1 TeV.)
So, AMS-02 made some bold claims today. Dark matter is mentioned 9 times in the press release, supersymmetry twice. They say that “...over the coming months, AMS will be able to tell us conclusively whether these positrons are a signal for dark matter...”. However this is just a lot of smoke without fire. There's absolutely no way that measurements of the positron spectrum may give us a reliable evidence for dark matter: not now, and not anytime soon. We simply have no robust way of telling a dark matter signal from a boring astrophysics background in that channel, because we don't know the shape nor the normalization of the background. It doesn't mean that AMS cannot provide a tantalizing signature of dark matter in the future. The most important thing we learned today is that AMS works and exceeds in precision the previous instruments (which wasn't that obvious: it's the first time a serious experiment is performed on a space station, and besides the mission underwent a dramatic downgrade shortly before the launch). We're waiting most eagerly on the AMS measurements of the antiproton and anti-deuterium spectra. A correlated excess in several channels could give us more confidence in the dark matter origin. Until that happens, the history has taught us to be skeptical about any evidence of dark matter from astrophysics experiments.
You can find the AMS paper here. See also Matt's blog. Reading the mainstream press it seems that Sam Ting with some help from CERN succeeded in fooling the journalists. I'm glad that CERN already shook off the faster-than-light neutrinos trauma and is ready for another hoopla.... life is going to be more interesting for bloggers :-)