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Atom smasher hiatus sets stage for more discovery

Published January 4, 2013 10:51 pm

The universe • 2-year hibernation will get atom smasher ready for even bigger bangs.
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Geneva • The world's largest and most powerful atom smasher goes into a two-year hibernation in March, as engineers carry out a revamp to help it reach maximum energy levels that could lead to more stunning discoveries following the detection of the so-called "God particle."

With the reopening of its $10 billion proton collider in early 2015, the stage will be set for observing more rare phenomena — and unlocking more mysteries, said James Gillies, chief spokesman for the European particle physics laboratory known as CERN.

The Large Hadron Collider under the Swiss-French border will operate for two more months then shut down through 2014, allowing engineers to lay thousands more superconducting cables aimed at bringing the machine up to "full design energy," Gillies said Friday.

Physicists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym CERN, won't exactly be idle as the collider takes a break. There are still reams more data to sift through since the July discovery of a new subatomic particle called the Higgs boson — dubbed the "God particle — which promises a new realm of understanding of the universe.

For the next two months, the Large Hadron Collider will be smashing protons with lead ions, then undergo several weeks of testing before it shuts down. The collider launched in September 2008, but had to be switched off just nine days later when a badly soldered electrical splice overheated, causing extensive damage to the massive magnets and other parts of the collider some 300 feet below the ground.

It cost $40 million to repair and improve the machine. Since its restart in November 2009, the collider has performed almost flawlessly and the power produced has been ramped up to new levels, creating a treasure trove of new data to sift through.

But because of the 2008 accident, the collider could only run at an energy level far below what it was designed to do. To fix that, Gillies said, engineers over the next two years will install 10,000 redesigned superconducting cables that connect between the magnets. That will vastly improve its capacity to simulate the moments after the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago.

"It will bring you more collisions. Which means that the more collisions you have, the more likely you are to see rare events," he said. "The Higgs particle was just one of many on the wish list that we'd like to find, so higher energy increases your discovery potential."