Particle collider shut down till spring

Scientists must wait until spring to use the world's biggest particle collider because repairs will run into the lab's normal winter shutdown, operators said Tuesday.

The European Organization for Nuclear Research earlier said an electrical failure Friday, nine days after the collider was first started, released a lot of liquid helium into the tunnel.

Experts have gone into the 17-mile circular tunnel housing the Large Hadron Collider to check on damage caused when an electrical connection between two magnets apparently melted, said James Gillies, spokesman for the organization, which is known as CERN.

But they have to wait several weeks before the temperature can be raised from near absolute zero so they can go inside the equipment and fully assess the damage, Gillies said.

“They're going to have to open up and really investigate what went on there,” he said.

He added it is clear at least two months will be needed for the whole procedure, including rechilling the equipment to obtain the “superconducting” properties needed to send subatomic particles streaming through the collider in beams that can be collided for studies.

That would go past the shutdown already scheduled for the CERN facility's winter break. It usually shuts in mid-November and resumes at the end of March or in early April, to avoid its heavy use of electricity during the winter, when Europe's demand for power is high.

The Large Hadron Collider was built to enable physicists to crash beams of protons into one another to study the tiniest subatomic particles that were first created after the “big bang,” which many theorize was the massive explosion that formed all matter.

After the break, operators will restart the “accelerator chain,” which creates the beams of protons fired through the machine to collide and create smaller particles that physicists use to study the makeup of matter and the universe.

That “is something that we do every year, and it's something we have a lot of experience in doing, so there's no reason to think that that would not go rather quickly,” Gillies said. “I suspect that the priority for the restart next year will be to get LHC beams as quickly as possible.”

The new collider, launched with great fanfare Sept. 10, had an auspicious start, firing beams of protons at the speed of light first in a clockwise direction though a fire-hose-sized tube in the tunnel, and then counterclockwise.

But a transformer failed 36 hours after startup, forcing a halt in tests. The transformer was easy to fix because it was outside the cold zone and it was ready to go again when the electrical fault occurred.

Scientists hope the collider will reveal more about “dark matter,” antimatter and possibly space and time.