Friday, June 20, 2008

Colossal construction: The world's nine largest science projects

A massive neutrino observatory deep underground near Sudbury, Ontario, Canada

Some have been heralded as the largest undertakings since the building of the pyramids.

Others have been likened to a new set of wonders of the world.

From a science perspective at least, here are our picks for the largest projects on Earth: running, under construction, and on the drawing-board...

1. Large Hadron collider at CERN

Billed as the world's largest science project, the LHC was unveiled to unearth the so-called "God particle". Early blogs and articles surmised that the device wielded so much energy that it might create a black hole (though scientifically inaccurate, it hinted at the awesome energy waiting to be unleashed.)

Here's how it works: Two beams of subatomic particles called 'hadrons' (protons or lead ions) travel in opposite directions inside the circular accelerator, picking up more and more energy with every lap. Physicists from around the world will then use the LHC to recreate the conditions found just after the Big Bang by smashing the two beams head-on at very high energy and they analysing the collisions.

2. Next-stop, cold fusion?: The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)

This first-ever demo-level fusion reactor will be built in southern France and promises to deliver the world's first sustained fusion reactions; In layman's terms: more bang for your buck. And at a projected cost of CDN $14.4 billion, it better.

When the eight-year construction project is complete (scheduled for late 2015), ITER will generate 500 MW of fusion power for extended periods of time.

For those not in the physics know-how, fusion is exceptionally difficult to achieve - and is the subjects of many controversial experiments. That fusion reproduces our sun's energy, without the greenhouse gas emissions and radioactive waste of other methods. (more...)

3. The finished International Space Station, circa 2011

When completed in 2010 (though that will likely slip to 2011) the International Space Station will be the largest multinational engineering project of all time.

With an estimated final pricetag of a tenth of a trillion dollars, the finished structure - with its outstretched solar arrays - will be the size of a football field. A far cry from the Mir space station, which had interior space comparable to the space shuttle.

Though pundits have cast doubts in recent years over the ISS's ability to perform useful science experiments, the addition of the outpost's second major lab (the Japanese Kibo module, along with the U.S. Destiny lab) will allow a crew of 3-6 people to conduct experiments only possible from orbit that will benefit life on Earth, as well as serving as a jumping-off point for missions to the Moon and, eventually, Mars. (more...)

4. A 3,000-foot-tall "Solar tower" in the Australian outback

Dubbed the "Solar Mission Project", this scientific feat takes solar energy to new heights.

Solar tower technology employs the sun's radiation to heat a large body of air, which is then forced by laws of physics (hot air rises) to move in the form of a hot wind through large turbines to generate electricity.

When complete in the far western New South Wales region of the Australian outback, it will stand a full-kilometre (3,280 feet).

When fully-functioning, will generate up to 200 MW of clean emission-free electricity - enough to power about 200,000 homes. (more...)

5. The largest-scale climate-change simulator on Earth

Many studies and tests have been done to give the Earth a regular health checkup, including a comprehensive study of climate-change studies. The difference here is that, rather than sending out a research vessel to the High Arctic, or analizing data from remote sensing instruments amongst one or two teams, this project is using the idle computer time of thousands of volunteers to crunch climate-change data. Though the results are scary, the analysis is impressive in its scope, running on a set-up similar to the popular SETI@home screensaver program. (more...)

6. James Webb Space Telescope

What's after Hubble? Around when NASA is ready to retire one of the most successful science instruments of all time, the James Webb Space Telescope will launch into an ultra-high orbit 1.5 million km from Earth (compare that to the 500 km Hubble orbits above our world.) Out there in the cool vacuum, protected from the sun by a tenis-court-sized shield, the JWST will to try and find the first galaxies that formed in the early Universe. JWST will also be able to peer through dusty clouds to see stars forming planetary systems, connecting the Milky Way to our own Solar System.

With a large mirror, 6.5 meter (21.3 feet) diameter mirror the $5 billion+ JWST will launch folded up inside the space shuttle and then unfold to its full-size - several times that of Hubble. (more...)

7. The Svalbard "Doomsday" Seed Vault

Known to some as the "Doomsday Vault" or "Noah's Ark for Seeds", this seed bank just might deliver us (and the seeds) from extinction should disaster strike in some not-too-distant future.

The goal of the project is to preserve an organic specimen of nearly every food crop in the world, preserving them for a time when they may no longer exist naturally.

Carved deep into the side of an icy mountain on Norway's remote arctic island, Svalbard, the vault is designed to respond to two concerns: global warming, and rising sea levels. The region's cold climate ensures the seeds will be kept cool - and by nature at that. In addition, Svalbard is remote enough (picture hungry roaming polar bears) to ensure protection from prying evil-doers. (more...)

8. Space elevator

Simply put, this project aims to take space-bound human travels to new heights - into orbit to be precise.

Astronauts and cargo would no longer need to rely on cumbersome shuttles to reach their work site. These hyper-elevators would take the willing some 100,000 kilometres up on a robot attached to a tether. The goal is to provide cheap and safe transport into outer space. While some experts say this will not be possible for at least another decade, zealous inventors are already thinking up ways how to turn this lofty ambition into a reality.

In the meantime, the technology might yield an additional advantage to those who wish to remain earthbound a little longer: High-speed wireless internet access. (more...)

9. The ANTARES underwater neutrino detecting array

In short, ANTARES (Astronomy with a Neutrino Telescope and Abyss environmental RESearch project) and its counterpart to South Pole neutrino telescopes AMANDA and IceCube Neutrino Detector is a telescope designed to look down while its more-traditional star-gazing cousins look up. Don't think there's much to see? Think again.

Neutrino telescopes are capable of detecting radiation produced by high energy muons (an elementary particle with a negative charge) that is the result of Earth-core-penetrating neutrinos (an elementary particle with zero charge and zero mass) that enter our planet's southern hemisphere.

Adding to its all-around neatness, ANTARES is built at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Toulon, France. It will compliment the research of its counterparts in the South Pole, neutrino telescopes AMANDA and IceCube Neutrino Detector.

The primary aim of the experiment is to use neutrinos as a tool to study particle acceleration mechanisms. It just might revolutionize the way we see and think about what's beneath our feet, and how it relates to what's above our heads: the universe. (more...)

Honorable mention: Canadian connection - Canadian Light Source Synchrotron
This stadium-sized particle-accelerator-like device is the only such facility here in Canada and one of only a handful in North America. After it sucks up a good percentage of the equivalent power consumption of nearby Saskatoon (a city of about 200,000 in Saskatchewan) this generation-3 synchrotron shoots tungsten atoms through a booster ring to nearly the speed of light, then diverts that energy into a larger storage ring to produce specially-"tuned" light that can do everything from scan fetuses inside live animals in unparalleled detail to machining gears the width of an ant's leg. The technology may soon lead to new agricultural science breakthroughs and electronics advances such as cell phone antennas so small they can double as the phone's outer casing. (more...)

Honorable mention: Trans-Atlantic Mag-lev
More a technology project than a science experiment, this one's such a sexy idea, we had to mention it here. Imagine being able to go from New York to London underwater, in a electro-magnetically-levitated train that can travel through a vacuum at close to 10,000 km/h. Though this project isn't actually on the drawing board, it's been suggested by researchers at MIT. What will it cost to send you from the East Coast of North America to Europe in about 55 minutes? One fifth of a trilllion dollars. The researchers say such an uber-freeway is possible - but suggest that a tunnel across Lake Ontario would be a more realistic start. (more...)

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