Unveiling the nature of dark matter with direct detection experiments

Abstract: The desire of discovery is an anthropic need which characterises and connects the human being over the eras. In particular, observing the sky is an instinctive drive exerted by the curiosity of the mysteries which it retains. At the present time, the tremendous advances in the exploration of space have opened even more challenges than back in the days. One of the most urgent question is unveiling the nature of dark matter (DM). As stated by Neta A. Bahcall (Professor at Princeton University), "Cosmology has revealed an amazing universe, filled with a "dark sector" that composes 95% of the energy density of our cosmos [...]" ( Dark matter universe , PNAS, 2015). About one-third of this dark sector is associated to an invisible and still undetected form of matter, the so-called dark matter, whose gravitational effect manifests at all cosmological scales. Both theoretical and experimental observations based on ordinary gravity reinforced the evidences for the existence of DM, since its first appearance in the pioneering calculations of F. Zwicky (1933). This PhD project explores the hypothesis that DM is made of new particles beyond the standard model. More specifically, it focuses on those DM particles which are trapped into the galactic gravitational field and populate the galactic halo. If DM interacts with ordinary particles, extremely sensitive detectors operating in very low-background environments, are expected to detect galactic DM particles scattering off their target material. This widely employed experimental technique is known as DM direct detection and it is the focus of my studies, where I consider the further hypothesis that DM interacts with atomic nuclei. The research I conducted during my PhD program consists of two main parts: the first part focused on purely phenomenology aspects of the DM direct detection (namely on the DM annual modulation treated using a non-relativistic effective theory and on the scattering of spin-1 DM particles off polarised nuclei) and the second one is more closely connected to experimental applications. The latter has been strongly stimulated by my collaboration with the two DM direct detection experiments CRESST and COSINUS.  For CRESST, I compute the DM-nucleus cross-section for the conventional spin-dependent interactions, used to analyse the data collected with a prototype Li-based detector module, and I derive some prospects for a time dependent analysis of CRESST-III data, using a statistical frequentist approach based on Monte Carlo simulations. For COSINUS, I provide a significant extension of the pulse shape model currently used by CRESST and COSINUS in order to explain experimental observations related to the COSINUS detector response. Finally, I contribute to ongoing studies on the phonon propagation in NaI crystals based on solid state physics. This PhD thesis has been oriented to fill the gap between theoretical and experimental efforts in the DM field. This approach has facilitated the exchange of expertise, has driven the trend of my research and has stimulated the development of the ideas and methods described in this PhD thesis.