A sign welcomes visitors to a lab 4,850 feet beneath the earth on Wednesday, May 30, 2012. The Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, S.D., will house the world’s most sensitive dark-matter detector. Scientists say that the lab—housed inside the now-shuttered Homestake Gold Mine—could help scientists understand the origins of the universe. AP Photo/Amber Hunt
S.D. (AP)—Nestled nearly 5,000 feet beneath the earth in the gold boom
town of Lead, S.D., is a laboratory that could help scientists answer
some pretty heavy questions about life, its origins and the universe.
hard to spot from the surface. Looking around the rustic town, there
are far more nods to its mining past than to its scientific future, but
on Wednesday, when part of the closed Homestake Gold Mine officially
became an underground campus, Lead’s name will be known in scientific
circles as the place where the elusive stuff called dark matter might
finally be detected.
Unimpressed? Consider this: It’s sure to earn itself a reference on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory.”
year, 2012, is going to be a very significant year because we get to
turn the … detector on and know very soon whether we have actually
found dark matter or not,” said Rick Gaitskell, a scientist with Brown
University who has worked alongside dozens of scientists over the past
few years to move forward with the Large Underground Xenon experiment—or
LUX—the world’s most sensitive dark-matter detector.
most people, dark matter is a term that made their eyes glaze over in
science class. But for Gaitskell and scientists like him, it’s the
mystery meat of existence.
makes up a huge amount of the universe,” said Kevin Lesko, of Lawrence
Berkeley National Lab, who is the principal investigator for the Sanford
Underground Research Facility.
Visitors descend into a science lab 4,850 feet beneath the earth on Wednesday, May 30, 2012 in Lead, S.D. AP Photo/Amber Hunt
know it’s there by its gravitational pull but, unlike regular matter
and antimatter, it’s so far undetectable. Scientific papers and books
have been dedicated to what it could be, but so far, Gaitskell—who’s
said he’s been “hunting dark matter” for 23 years—and his colleagues
know only that it could explain why the universe isn’t made up equally
of matter and antimatter. That, in turn, could explain how the world as
we know it came to be.
has to be there because of its effects through gravity, but it also has
to have properties that make it very unusual—otherwise, we would have
detected it already,” Lesko said.
matter—people and planets, for example—make up about 4% of the total
mass-energy of the universe, he said. Dark matter makes up about 25%.
“So it’s five times as much as us, and yet we’ve never directly observed it.”
Scientists hope the lab buried 4,850 feet beneath the earth’s surface will change that.
Wednesday, Gov. Dennis Daugaard is to give tours of the underground lab
for scientists, dignitaries and media. William Brinkman of the federal
Department of Energy confirmed his plans to attend Tuesday, said Bill
Harlan, spokesman for the research facility.
unveiling has been a long time coming: The Homestead mine opened during
the Black Hills’ gold rush in 1876 and outlasted many counterparts. In
the late 1990s, it still employed about 1,000 people, but as the value
of gold dropped, it became clear that the mine’s days were numbered. It
shuttered for good in 2003.
science community seized on the closure. Dark matter is too sensitive
to detect in normal laboratories, but one so far underground would help
shield it from pesky cosmic radiation. Also, the LUX detector is
submerged in water, further insulating it.
said he’s worked with 70 scientists and 14 institutions over the past
four years to finally make the LUX experiment a reality.
detector will be in the Davis Campus, named after Ray Davis, who won a
Nobel Prize for Physics for an experiment he started in 1965 inside the
then-working mine. Nearby in a new hall called the Transition Area will
be the Majorana Demonstrator Experiment. That’s aimed to search for a
rare form of radioactive decay, which could help physicists understand
how the universe evolved.
Scientist Tom Schutt of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland explains how a dark-matter detector will work Wednesday, May 30, 2012, in the Sanford Underground Research Facility nearly 4,900 feet beneath the earth in Lead, S.D. AP Photo/Amber Hunt
are set to begin this year, Harlan said. All told, the site has cost
more than $300 million—a mix of private donations and state and
federal funding. Among the contributors: a $10 million Housing and Urban
Development grant, $40 million from the South Dakota Legislature and
$70 million from philanthropist T. Denny Sanford.
About 70 former mine workers now work for the lab. Greg King, a lifelong Lead resident, is one of them.
whole town was built up around the Homestake,” King said. “As the
property closed and people left, a lot of employees left. Now, there’s a
lot of excitement in town. People are very thrilled that the Homestake
is once again, albeit not as a mine.”
Tiger, who owns a consignment store on Main Street, said the
resurrection of the mine represents hope for Lead, a town of about 3,100
residents about a half-hour from the Wyoming border. Three generations
of Tiger’s family worked for the mining company.
“The economy up here really died after Homestake shut down,” she said. “It was absolutely devastating.”
it not been for Deadwood, Lead’s higher-profile neighbor that draws
about 2 million tourists a year, the town might have gone under, she
“I was raised through Homestake. I was very sad when it was shut down. (The mine) definitely needed to be used for something.”
Source: The Associated Press