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OPINION | EDITORIAL: The new space race

In a lab under the Dakotas July 13, 2022 at 3:52 a.m.


Made? Just happened? Made? Just happened? It's the age-old question: How'd we get here?

Some of us believe the Almighty's glue stitched the universe together, but that's another editorial. Or eight. Our inner nerd, however, notes that scientists are thinking about that cosmic glue, too. And how to explain Things.

The papers say some of them are currently at work a mile under the Black Mining Hills of Dakota in an attempt to document the existence of dark matter--the mysterious substance that science believes keeps our literal and figurative motors intact.

Dark matter is thought to be the stuff that keeps celestial bodies in the universe from breaking apart. Galaxies, especially clusters of them, are rotating at such a speed that the gravity generated by their observable matter couldn't possibly hold them together, according to the smart kids at CERN who run the Large Hadron Collider.

That's where "dark matter" comes in. Scientists believe it accounts for most of the universe's mass. Only, it does not reflect, absorb or emit light, therefore making it hard to detect.

The paper reports a five-year $60 million U.S. Department of Energy project--the last of three planned so far--was launched recently at the Sanford Underground Research Facility, which sits a mile beneath an old gold mine in South Dakota. The project's goal is simple: Detect dark matter.

Managed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the project entails quite the payload. There are the 250 scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom, Portugal and Korea (we presume South); a giant Thermos-like tank, with a second inner tank, made of "the purest titanium in the world"; a rare liquefied gas called xenon; a device called the time projection chamber; and perhaps most tantalizingly, the LUX-ZEPLIN.

Cue the screenplay.

The tank, called the cryostat, is designed to keep the xenon cold and block all cosmic particles, which constantly move through and around us, as well as any background radiation. The mile of dirt between it and the surface is being counted on to help keep those particles out.

The Associated Press reports that scientists believe dark matter can avoid such obstacles as cosmic particles, and the xenon inside the cryostat is supposed to help detect elements of dark matter. If the project is successful, the time projection chamber housing the tanks will detect light emitted by the collision of dark matter particles with a xenon nucleus.

The resulting wormhole allowing an awaiting, invading alien army to enter our dimension won't require the chamber for detection, however. (We kid.)

Scientists say LUX-ZEPLIN improves on the sensitivity of the previous experiments by a factor of 50 or more. They also give themselves only a 10 percent to 50 percent shot at detecting anything. Which represents pretty good odds, scientifically. Plus, a rival team in Italy currently is conducting a similar experiment. Talk about your space race. Nothing motivates like competition.

No wormholes yet. No public announcements of flashing collisions between dark matter and xenon nuclei, either. But we wait with coffee breath. And maybe the scientists can find that dark stuff underground.


Print Headline: The new space race

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