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."

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