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Looking for answers deep underground: Huron presentation first for Sanford lab team in telling its story

Posted: Friday, Dec 7th, 2012

HURON — Unlocking the mysteries of the universe was complicated stuff when physicists tried their best to explain what they do to a roomful of non-scientists earlier this week.

But something was abundantly clear.

The folks who have spent months assembling a laboratory one mile below the surface of the earth at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead are hardly able to contain their excitement about the days ahead.

Two of the physicists — Vincente Guiseppe in person and Jeremy Mock via a live, two-way video link — detailed the first two major experiments about to get under way at the lab for a large audience in Huron on Tuesday. Many in the room at consecutive presentations were young people who may be inspired to pursue science degrees because of the Sanford lab and its potential for new knowledge.

The world-class lab, built at the 4,850-foot level of the former Homestake gold mine, can now be viewed by the public from hundreds of miles away because, starting with the Huron program, the Sanford team now plans to continue taking this show around South Dakota, said communications director Bill Harlan.

Guiseppe, a University of South Dakota physicist, is involved with the Majorana Demonstrator experiment, designed to look for one of nature’s rarest radioactive decays.

Mock, a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, is on the team preparing the Large Underground Xenon (LUX) dark matter detector for activation.

Scientists are working deep underground to avoid the bombardment of cosmic interference.

”The rock actually filters out much of that cosmic radiation,” said Ron Wheeler, executive director of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, which operates the lab.

With a key donation of $70 million by T. Denny Sanford, the mine was reopened and work began several years ago. Homestake was shuttered in 2003 and donated to the state three years later.

“When we took over this facility it was filling with water,” Wheeler said.

By mid-June, it had been pumped dry down to the 6,000-foot level through round-the-clock dewatering.

At the 4,850-foot level, workers began creating the laboratory facilities, and more than 4,000 loads of materials were lowered one mile underground. Time-lapse photography takes viewers on a seven-month journey from start to finish of the lab.

In a new hall, the Majorana Demonstrator experiment will soon search for an extremely rare form of radioactive decay that has yet to be observed. “There’s a lot of fundamental questions about the universe that remain unanswered,” Guiseppe said.

Neutrinos are one of the most abundant particles in the universe — with 65 million of them passing through one’s thumbnail per second — but they are very elusive, he said.

Construction of the detector is well under way as workers have transitioned the space from a gold mine environment to a clean one.

Guiseppe described the work as very delicate, time-consuming and expensive.

Mock, working toward his doctorate degree, is involved with the LUX experiment. The detector is the world’s most sensitive device. Standing a little over six feet tall and three feet wide, it has been lowered into a 70,000-gallon water tank for even more insulation from cosmic radiation.

The detector will look for what’s known as dark matter, which is believed to comprise 80 percent of all matter in the universe.

“We know it exists, but we don’t know what it is,” Mock said.

He said scientists have a working theory about dark matter and are seeking to prove or disprove it. The detector will start looking when it’s activated in February.

Wheeler said these are the first two experiments for the Sanford lab, but a wide array of proposals are pending.

Life deep underground in the former gold mine — which opened in 1876 with the advent of the Black Hills Gold Rush — is comfortable these days, thanks to a climate-controlled environment. Without it, it would be a rather hot place to be. The rock temperature at the 8,000-foot level, for example, is 140 degrees.

“The only thing we don’t have are windows,” Mock said in answer to a question, “and sometimes we miss the windows.”

For the complete article see the 12-06-2012 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 12-06-2012 paper.

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