Some 3000 ft. below the surface of Japan, the Super-Kamiokande detector is on the lookout for faster-than-light Cherenkov particles that might signal a supernova.
The fact that you may have heard of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a landmark achievement in hype. This superstar among particle accelerators, buried hundreds of feet below Switzerland and France, is the rare scientific undertaking that arrives in a frenzy of publicity. This summer, protons will begin colliding in the LHC’s 17-mi.-long circular tunnel. If everything goes according to plan, the accelerator could supply some of the biggest, most elusive pieces of the cosmic jigsaw puzzle, from details on the elusive mass of dark matter that physicists have long sought, to the framework for a Grand Unified Theory. This would explain the relationship between electromagnetism and strong and weak nuclear forces, three of the fundamental forces of nature. (The collider could also create an earth-swallowing black hole, solving both the world credit crunch and the glut of Hannah Montana-branded goods, but that possibility has been overstated, according to scientists.)
The LHC is also getting attention because of its looks. With miles of cables and tunnels and multiple hulking particle detectors, almost any photograph of any part of this accelerator is like a glamour shot of a supervillain’s doomsday weapon. But there’s room for more than one groundbreaking megamachine in today’s scientific pantheon. Around the globe, natural mysteries are under assault from all kinds of colossal devises, from a ship that probes the magma miles below the planet’s surface to a neutrino detector designed to detect the first signs of a galactic supernova. These research machines aren’t celebrities yet, but they deserve to be.
1. Super-KamiokandeIt isn’t the biggest neutrino observatory in the world, or the most sensitive. But if a supernova ever goes off in the Milky Way, physicists will be grateful for the Super-Kamiokande (Super-K, pictured above). Buried more than 3000 ft. underground in central Japan, and filled with 50,000 gal. of purified water, the Super-K is designed to detect various types, or “flavors,” of neutrinos. Specifically, it analyzes Cherenkov light, the visible blue radiation that’s generated when a particle exceeds the speed of light (didn’t know that could happen, did you?). Likened to an optical sonic boom, Cherenkov light is a familiar—if unnerving—sight in nuclear reactors. It occurs when charged particles passing through some sort of medium, such as water, in which the light is actually slowed down (okay, so we’re stretching the truth on the speed-of-light thing).
The Super-K, which is composed of a 135-ft.-tall stainless steel cylinder and a smaller, interior structure, employs thousands of light sensors to detect the neutrinos at work within the Cherenkov radiation. Researchers have used the observatory to confirm that the sun produces neutrinos. Also, the Super-K was among the first detectors used to dispute the theory that neutrinos have a non-zero mass. But the observatory’s most accessible function, and potentially its most important, is its role in the Supernova Early Warning System (SNEWS). The Milky Way is overdue for a supernova—the last one happened 400 years ago—which could be a research goldmine for physicists. That’s assuming they know it’s coming, and have the proper instruments ready to collect the incoming data. Since the more visible—and violent—effects of a supernova are preceded by a burst of neutrinos, the Super-K is on a constant lookout for a sudden, suspicious influx of the faster-than-light particles. By the way, a supernova could eliminate all life on Earth by bathing us in lethal gamma rays. Scientists say the next supernova probably will be too far off to cause us harm. Otherwise, though, the Super-K will provide a crucial few hours in which to hop into our transgalactic escape pods. Or, more likely, to bend over and kiss our charged particles goodbye.
2. 45 Tesla HybridAs world records go, the one held by the 45-T hybrid magnet at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State is a little confusing. It’s the largest, most powerful magnet in the world ... that generates a sustained field. So while there are stronger pulsed magnets, this 22-ft.-tall, 35-ton model is the most consistently powerful, capable of fields as strong as 45 tesla. That means it’s around one million times stronger than the planet’s magnetic field, and as much as 20 times stronger than the magnet in an MRI machine.
To achieve fields that powerful, this hybrid magnet—it’s composed of a 11.5 tesla superconducting magnet and a 33.5 tesla resistive magnet—is surrounded by pipes filled with purified water and liquid helium, which keep the machine running at 1.8 Kelvin, or –456 F. None of which explains why this high-powered magnet is in such high demand among researchers. Molecules behave differently in strong magnetic fields, becoming easier to analyze (like a molecular, zoomed-in version of an MRI scan) or sometimes even taking on different basic properties. The holy grail of high-field magnetic research is room-temperature superconductivity, which would provide all the benefits of superconductive materials (essentially zero resistance to electric currents) without the need for expensive liquid helium or nitrogen systems. There’s no guarantee that the 45-T will chase down that particular grail, but it remains one of the most powerful—and useful—magnets in the world.
(Photograph by Kristen Bartlett Grace/University of Florida)
3. Hurricane SimulatorThe cause is noble, but there’s something deliciously evil about the University of Florida’s Hurricane Simulator, with its eight 5-ft.-tall fans capable of generating 130 mph winds—equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane—and high-pressure water jets that can simulate rainfall as heavy as 35 in. per hour.
A 5000-gal. water tank cools the machine’s four marine diesel engines, which add up to 2800 hp. The fans actually generate 100-mph winds, which pass through a duct that constricts the flow of air, and boosts its speed. The Simulator has been used to test the effects of extreme rain and hurricane-force gusts on structures, and was joined last week by a device that launches high-speed shingles.
4. Green Bank TelescopeOfficially, it’s the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope, standing 485 ft. high, and weighing 17 million pounds. More importantly, the Green Bank Telescope (GBT) is one of the largest moving objects on Earth. Its dish measures 100 x 110 meters, and the unique, asymmetric shape prevents the receiver’s support structure from obscuring the mirror, itself composed of more than 2000 aluminum surface panels.
By adjusting the dish on its massive wheel-and-track assembly, as well as tweaking the shape of the mirror with actuators attached to each panel, scientists can use GBT to acquire a full view of the sky above 5 degrees elevation. The instrument also has an extremely high sensitivity to incoming radio signals. The GBT, which is named for Green Bank, West Virginia, a federally mandated radio-free zone, has made strides in the study of distant pulsars. Its latest mission? Tracking NASA’s Phoenix Lander, which just landed on Mars.
5. Drilling Vessel ChikyuOn track to break not one, but two world records, the international Drilling Vessel Chikyu is the largest research drilling vessel on the planet, and it’s designed to bore deeper into the Earth’s mantle than anything in history. Technically speaking, a Russian program has created a hole with greater depth (12 km), but the Chikyu’s 400-ft.-tall tower will drill 7 km into an earthquake-prone subduction zone off the coast of Japan, where the Earth’s crust is comparatively thin. The vessel was built specifically for a single multiyear research expedition, and scientists hope to learn more about the planet’s mantle, and why normally smooth-moving tectonic plates can suddenly become locked, causing earthquakes and tsunamis.
The Chikyu is the first research vessel to use the oil industry’s riser technology, where the drill pipe is surrounded by a fluid-filled casing, to stabilize the pressure within the hole. The vessel is also equipped with computer-controlled, 360-degree thrusters, which respond to GPS data to keep the Chikyu stable during drilling operations—if the ship drifts more than a few yards, the pipe could break. One such accident has already briefly set the expedition back, but the vessel is on schedule to finish its experiments by 2012.