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America's Tevatron collider shut down, but not easily

Image: Giovani Punzi
Employees man the main control room that runs all the accelerators at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., including the Tevatron collider.M. Spencer Green / AP
/ Source: LiveScience

One of the world's most powerful atom smashers, the Tevatron, shut down Friday, with video from the event streamed online.

The atom smasher is located at the federal Fermilab physics laboratory in Batavia, Ill. Inside the accelerator, particles were ramped up to near light speed as they zipped around a 4-mile-round (6.3-kilometer-round) ring. When two particles collided, they disintegrated into other exotic particles in a powerful outpouring of energy.

While it was once the most powerful atom smasher, the Tevatron was surpassed by the new Large Hadron Collider at Europe's CERN physics lab on the French-Swiss border. [Twisted Physics: 7 Mind-Blowing Findings]

The Tevatron's end came a little after 2:30 p.m. CT (3:30 p.m. ET), as Fermilab physicist Helen Edwards pushed two specially constructed buttons, one red and the other blue. The red button shut down the collision of protons and antiprotons in the Tevatron. The blue button shut off the electrical current to the accelerator.

That one, Edwards had to push twice.

"It didn't want to give up so easy," said Bob Mau, the head of the accelerator division operation department at Fermilab, who was leading the live-streamed shutdown. 

The 28-year-old Tevatron was most recently in the news in April when a report suggested the accelerator's CDF experiment might have detected a never-before-seen subatomic particle. However, further tests have suggested that the tantalizing signal was a fluke.

The Tevatron played a part in some major physics finds, such as the existence of the top quark and five baryons. The baryon discovery helped scientists test and refine the Standard Model of particle physics and shape our understanding of matter, energy, space and time. 

The experiments at Tevatron have also helped narrow down the search for the elusive Higgs boson, or "God particle." LHC physicists are on the hunt for the Higgs, the last fundamental particle to be predicted by the Standard Model but not found.

Officials said those involved with the two detector experiments, CDF and DZero, will continue to analyze already-collected data. Those results will be detailed in future scientific papers. The studies at the two detectors are aimed at understanding and identifying the origin of mass, extra dimensions of space and new particles.

In addition, Fermilab officials say they will continue to operate most of the 10 particle accelerators onsite to generate particle beams for experiments involving protons, neutrinos and muons.

The mood today, however, was nostalgic. 

"For many of us, CDF is more than a machine," CDF scientist Ben Kilminster said as he and his team shut down their detector. "It's a living creature that has the superhuman ability to see the microscopic quantum world. So it's going to be with heavy hearts that many of us watch it close its eyes to this world that has captivated us for so long."