February 10, 2009

LHC Slated For September Restart

Scientists will soon come to a decision on when to restart the Large Hadron Collider, the so-called "Big Bang" machine that suffered a costly malfunction after being switched on last September.

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the builders of the multibillion-dollar project have been in meetings this week to discuss a re-launch of the LHC as well any possible new problems it could encounter.

CERN is expected to make a final decision on the exact re-launch date following a meeting on Monday, adding they hope to get the collider up and running in time to deliver the first batch of data for experts to begin experiments by the end of the year.

"The workshop was absolutely phenomenal," said Steve Myers, CERN's director for accelerators and technology, who chaired the workshop.

The LHC is the biggest atom-smashing machine ever built and straddles the borders of France and Switzerland.

It is designed to simulate the "Big Bang", which started the universe 15 billion years ago, by smashing sub-atomic particles together at energies never before achieved.

It was originally slated to start up in 2007, but it experienced a series of setbacks due to a poorly designed magnet and electrical connectors that bent when the machine was cooled to its operating temperature and warmed up again, knocking its operating date back to September 10, 2008.

Nine days after being switched on in September, the LHC broke down again because of faulty electrical connections, which led to a leak of super-cold helium, causing damage.

The damage, which happened just before it was due to collide its first protons, resulted in 53 of the magnets used to accelerate sub-atomic particles around the machine's 17-mile underground tunnel to be brought to the surface for repair.

This week's meeting in Chamonix also detailed two further "suspect connections" that have since been found and engineers are working to remedy the problem.

Myers is confident the recommendations are the best way forward for the LHC and for the field of particle physics in general.

"CERN's priority for 2009 is to get collision data for the experiments, but with caution as the guiding principle. The recommendations made to the CERN management are cautious, while achieving the goal of running this year," he said.

He also spoke of the designed fail-safe protection systems to ensure that the LHC will not fall victim to similar problems in the future.

Electronic monitors will provide early warnings of hazards, and the magnet network will also be fitted with pressure-release valves to confine the damage caused by any future leak.

As for when the atom smasher will be switched back on, Meyer's said they're shooting for a first injection of beam towards the end of September, with collisions four or five weeks later.

"It's ambitious, but we have a machine that's just raring to go."

Scientists hope the LHC will provide answers to big questions, such as what causes mass and whether hidden dimensions exist in space.

Critics of the program have voiced concern over the possibility of tiny black holes being created in the Collider, although experts insist that if it happens, they will pose no threat.

Based on a New Scientist blog post and a report by the UK Telegraph


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