October 20, 2008

CERN Says LHC Back On Track By Spring

A spokesperson from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) told reporters on Friday that it would likely take most of the winter to repair problems that led to the forced shutdown of its atom smasher before resuming activity in spring.

 The shutdown of CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) last month occurred only 10 days after the experiment began, due to a helium leak in its tunnel. It was caused by a faulty electrical connection between two of the accelerator's magnets.

The massive electromagnets deep underground appear to have escaped damage, but damage to insulation and other parts around 29 of the magnets will likely require that they be brought to the surface for repair, said spokesman James Gillies of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

The collider, built in a tunnel 100 meters (330 feet) below the ground and straddling the Franco-Swiss border on the outskirts of Geneva, will not restart until Spring 2009 because it had to be warmed up from its operating temperature of minus 456.3 degrees Fahrenheit so that the fault could be analyzed, CERN said.

It takes a month to warm the collider gradually to room temperature from its operating temperature at near absolute zero, colder than outer space. Once the repairs are made, it will take another month to recool it.

By the time it could be cooled down again, CERN would have run into its annual winter maintenance.

"This incident was unforeseen," CERN Director-General Robert Aymar said in a statement on Thursday. "But I am now confident that we can make the necessary repairs, ensure that a similar incident can not happen in the future and move forward to achieving our research objectives."

Scientists created the LHC with hopes of discovering new clues about the origins of the universe. The collider uses superconductivity - the ability of some metals to conduct electricity without any resistance in the extreme cold - to operate the electromagnets, which guide the beams of protons until the particles collide with each other.

"We'll be pretty busy," Gillies said referring to the upcoming repairs, adding that costs of the repairs have yet to be determined but that CERN would be able to cover them out of its budget.

Plans are now to put proton beams back into the collider by May or June, he said.

Gillies said technicians have been taking steps to make sure such a problem doesn't develop again.

One thing they have been doing is examining their computer records to see if there were any signs of trouble that would have warned that a problem was developing, he said.

When the collider began on September 10, critics claimed it was dangerous because it could create black holes that might swallow up the entire

The LHC is intended to send beams of subatomic particles around the 17-mile (27-km) subterranean tunnel to smash into each other at close to the speed of light. The goal is to recreate conditions that occurred immediately after the "Big Bang," which cosmologists believe is at the origin of our expanding universe.


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