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Large Hadron Atom Smasher Reaches Near Speed of Light

by / Tuesday, 30 March 2010 / Published in Blog - Space Log

Scientists celebrated at the world’s biggest atom smasher at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva on Tuesday as they started colliding particles at record energy levels mimicking conditions close to the Big Bang, opening a new era in the quest for the secrets of the universe.

The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) said it had unleashed the unprecedented bursts of energy on the third attempt, as beams of protons thrust around the 27-kilometre (16.8-mile) accelerator collided at close to the speed of light.

“This is physics in the making, the beginning of a new era, we have collisions at 7 TeV (teralectronvolts),” said Paola Catapano, a CERN scientist and spokeswoman, referring to the record energy levels achieved.

This, the third attempt, triggered collisions among the 20 billion protons in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at 1.06 pm (1106 GMT), creating powerful but microscopic bursts of energy that mimic conditions close to the Big Bang that created the universe.

“We’re within a billionth of a second of the Big Bang,” CERN spokesman James Gillies told AFP. The new stage, dubbed “First Physics”, marks only the beginning of an initial 18- to 24-month series of billions of such collisions.

The LHC, which is located in a tunnel under the Franco-Swiss border, ground to halt with a major breakdown within days of its launch in 2008. But the huge scientific experiment then passed several groundbreaking milestones since it was restarted from repairs last November.

Scientists around the world will sift through and process the data on a giant computer network, searching for evidence of a theorised missing link called the Higgs Boson, commonly called the “God Particle”.

“In this kind of physics, what’s important in order to observe new phenomena is to collect statistics,” said CERN scientist Despiona Hatzifotiadu. “It will give us a clue of how we were created in the beginning,” she added. The experiment also aims to shed light on “dark matter” and subsequently “dark energy”, invisible matter or forces that are thought to account together for some 96 percent of the cosmos.

At this stage the LHC is still running on only partial power. It is designed to run collisions at twice the current energy — 14 TeV, equivalent to 99.99 percent of the speed of light.

CERN is aiming to cross that threshold with the giant, cryogenically-cooled machine after 2011.

At full power the detectors in cathedral sized chambers should capture some 600 million collisions every second among trillions of protons racing around the LHC 11,245 times a second.

Casey Kazan via AFP and PhysOrg.com

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