Thursday, 31 May 2012 10:52
The quest to answer some of the big questions about life, the universe and everything has moved to South Dakota.
The Associated Press reports that the new Sanford Underground Research Facility in the old gold-mining town of Lead, South Dakota, plans to open its doors and start up its experiments in the coming days.
First and foremost among those experiments is the Large Underground Xenon experiment, or LUX for short.
While the Sanford facility has some broad applications, LUX is ultimately the driving force behind the new research center.
While it boasts some substantial engineering research laboratories above ground, the reason Sanford was located in Lead in the first place was the 5,000-foot-deep mining tunnels underlying the town. Spread across 7,700 acres, the tunnels from the town's Homestake Gold Mine stretch more than 370 miles under the surface.
These deep underground caverns offer the perfect backdrop for LUX, an experiment designed in the hopes of finding the first clear evidence of dark matter. While no direct evidence for this substance has yet been found, current theories suggest that it accounts for as much as 25 percent of all mass-energy in the universe, based upon the evidence of its gravitational pull.
By comparison, regular matter accounts for around 4 percent, while dark energy composes the remainder.
The key issue with dark matter is that it does not generally interact with regular matter, making it difficult for researchers to detect.
PhysOrg explains that the LUX experiment will attempt to detect so-called WIMPs - weakly interacting massive particles - through the use of a detector that consists of a telephone-booth sized titanium bottle filled with extremely cold xenon. Itself surrounded by a vat of water and then, after final tests are completed, stored 5,000 feet below the surface in the underground portion of the Sanford Labs, the LUX detector should be sufficiently shielded from the normal background radiation in the universe to have a chance at detecting these elusive particles.
"LUX represents a major step forward in our quest to directly detect the dark matter particles which are likely the dominant form of matter in our universe," said Rick Gaitskell, a professor of physics at Brown University and one of the co-leaders of the Sanford Lab. "Results should come very quickly. After only four days of running LUX underground, we expect it to surpass the sensitivity of all previous dark matter direct search experiments. If particle dark matter is present in our galaxy LUX will have a significant opportunity to detect it."