US gold town now looks for 'dark matter'

2012-05-30 17:39

Lead - Nestled nearly 1 500m beneath the earth in the gold boom town of Lead, South Dakota, is a laboratory that could help scientists answer some pretty heavy questions about life, its origins and the universe.

On Wednesday, when part of the closed Homestake Gold Mine officially becomes an underground campus, Lead's name will be known in scientific circles as the place where the elusive stuff called dark matter might finally be detected.

"This year, 2012, is going to be a very significant year because we get to turn the... detector on and know very soon whether we have actually found dark matter or not," said Rick Gaitskell, a scientist with Brown University who has worked with dozens of scientists over the past few years to move forward with the Large Underground Xenon experiment - or LUX - the world's most sensitive dark-matter detector.

For Gaitskell and scientists like him, dark matter is a mystery of existence.

"It makes up a huge amount of the universe," said Kevin Lesko, of Lawrence Berkley National Lab, who is the principal investigator for the Sanford Underground Research Facility.

They know dark matter is there by its gravitational pull, but unlike regular matter and antimatter, it's so far undetectable. Scientific papers and books have been dedicated to what it could be, but so far, Gaitskell and his colleagues know only that it could explain why the universe isn't made up equally of matter and antimatter.

That, in turn, could explain how the world as we know it came to be.

"It has to be there because of its effects through gravity, but it also has to have properties that make it very unusual - otherwise, we would have detected it already," Lesko said.

Regular matter - people and planets, for example - make up about 4% of the total mass-energy of the universe, he said. Dark matter makes up about 25%.

"So it's five times as much as us, and yet we've never directly observed it."

Scientists hope the new lab will change that.

The Homestead mine opened during a gold rush in 1876 and outlasted many counterparts. In the late 1990s, it still employed about 1 000 people, but as the value of gold dropped, it became clear that the mine's days were numbered. It closed for good in 2003.

The science community seized on the closure. Dark matter is too sensitive to detect in normal laboratories, but one so far underground would help shield it from cosmic radiation. The LUX detector is submerged in water for further insulation.

Experiments are set to begin this year. All told, the site has cost more than $300m a mix of private donations and state and federal funding.

About 70 former mine workers now work for the lab. Greg King is one of them.

"The whole town was built up around the Homestake," King said. "As the property closed and people left, a lot of employees left. Now, there's a lot of excitement in town. People are very thrilled that the Homestake is once again."

Read more on:    us  |  science

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

linking and moving

2015-04-22 07:36 publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.