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Atom smasher begins year-end break

The world's largest atom smasher, which exceeded expectations after its comeback from heavy damage, will be ready to begin a groundbreaking research program in February, the operator said Friday.
Image: LHC run
This computer graphic shows the spray of particles created by a proton beam collision in the Compact Muon Solenoid, one of the Large Hadron Collider's detectors, on Wednesday. It was one of the last runs before the LHC was shutdown for an end-of-year break.CERN / CMS collaboration
/ Source: The Associated Press

The world's largest atom smasher, which exceeded expectations after its comeback from heavy damage, will be ready to begin a groundbreaking research program in February, the operator said Friday.

The European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, has shut down the machine for the planned year-end break. In January, there will be preparation to increase the energy used to smash protons into each other far above previous levels in hopes of revealing secrets of matter and the universe.

The new collisions are expected to shatter the subatomic particles into still smaller fragments and forces than previously achieved on any collider, including the previous record-holder — the Tevatron at Fermilab outside Chicago.

The new $10 billion machine, which has made a nearly flawless comeback after being heavily damaged during a startup failure a year ago, was built to examine suspected phenomena such as dark matter, antimatter and ultimately the creation of the universe billions of years ago, which many theorize occurred as an explosion known as the Big Bang.

Repairs and refinements costing $40 million are being made to the Large Hadron Collider in a 17-mile (27-kilometer) circular tunnel 300 feet (100 meters) under the Swiss-French border at Geneva.

"So far, it is all systems go for the LHC," CERN Director-General Rolf Heuer said.

All of the collider's systems have been tested and more than 1 million proton collisions have provided ample data to the six "experiments" in vast underground rooms so that they can calibrate their huge detectors to work accurately when the research program starts.

"We could not have asked for a better way to bring 2009 to a close," Heuer said.

Last weekend, two beams of circulating particles traveling in opposite directions at 1.18 trillion electron volts, or TeV, produced around 50,000 collisions. The record-breaking energy reached was about 20 percent higher than the previous record set at Fermilab.

After the shutdown and further tests and improvements, CERN will ramp up the energy pushing the beams of protons still higher, to three and a half times the highest levels reached in Chicago. The showers of particles created at the level are expected to reveal still more about the makeup of matter.

The long-term goal, after more modifications, will be to run the proton beams at 7 TeV in each direction.

The particle beams travel at nearly the speed of light, circling the tunnel in pipes 11,000 times a second until powerful, superconducting magnets force the beams to collide to see what will occur.

With the vast amount of data coming off the collisions, CERN has organized a grid of computers at research facilities around the world to analyze what is seen, and the system has been working smoothly, said Torsten Akesson, president of the CERN Council, made up of the 20 European nations that run the organization.

CERN said the operation this year had been carefully prepared in a step-by-step approach to make sure it was safe to go to 1.18 TeV.

Running at higher energy will require higher electrical currents — and further preparation of the protection systems for the collider and its huge superconducting magnets, operating at near absolute zero — colder than outer space — for maximum efficiency.

"Commissioning work for higher energies will be carried out in January, along with necessary adaptations to the hardware and software of the protection systems that have come to light during the 2009 run," CERN said.

Attention to the smallest detail can prove crucial. The LHC circulated its first beams Sept. 10, 2008, with great fanfare. But the machine was sidetracked nine days later when a badly soldered electrical splice overheated and set off a chain of damage to the magnets and other parts of the collider.

Physicists have used smaller, room-temperature colliders for decades to study the atom. They once thought protons and neutrons were the smallest components of the atom's nucleus, but the colliders showed that they are made of quarks and gluons and that there are other forces and particles.

More than 8,000 physicists from labs around the world also have work planned for the Large Hadron Collider. The organization is run by its 20 European member nations, with support from other countries, including observers from Japan, India, Russia and the U.S., which have made big contributions.