A pivotal landmark in the construction of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has been achieved -- the lowering of the final piece of the ATLAS particle detector into the underground collision hall at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. Experiments conducted at this revolutionary LHC facility, poised to become the world's most powerful particle accelerator, may help scientists unravel some of the deepest mysteries in particle physics.
The ATLAS detector is the world’s largest general-purpose particle detector, measuring 46 metres long, 25 metres high and 25 metres wide; it weighs 7000 tonnes and consists of 100 million sensors that measure particles produced in proton-proton collisions in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider3 (LHC). The first piece of ATLAS was installed in 2003 and since then many detector elements have journeyed down the 100 metre shaft into the ATLAS underground cavern. This last piece completes this gigantic puzzle.
“This is an exciting day for us,” said Marzio Nessi, ATLAS technical coordinator. “The installation process is coming to its conclusion and we are gearing up to start a new programme of physics research.”
"We believe that muons are signatures of interesting events," says Branadeis physicist James Bensinger. If enough muon-related events are detected, it's entirely likely that high-energy particle physics could cross the threshold to a new era of understanding, perhaps moving closer to that obscure "theory of everything."
Known as the small wheel, this is the final element to complete the ATLAS muon spectrometer, and will be journeying 100 metres into its underground experimental cavern. There are two ATLAS small wheels; though small in comparison to the rest of the ATLAS detector, they are each 9.3 metres in diameter and weigh 100 tonnes including massive shielding elements. They are covered with sensitive detectors to identify and measure the momentum of particles that will be created in the LHC collisions. The entire muon spectrometer system contains an area equal to three football fields, including 1.2 million independent electronic channels. As particles pass through a magnetic field produced by superconducting magnets, this detector has the ability to accurately track them to the width of a human hair.
“These fragile detectors comprise the largest measuring device ever constructed for high energy physics,” said George Mikenberg, ATLAS muon project leader.
“One of the major challenges is lowering the small wheel in a slow motion zigzag down the shaft,” explained Ariella Cattai, leader of the small wheel team, “and performing precision alignment of the detector within a millimetre of the other detectors already in the cavern.”
Comprising 450 physicists from 48 institutions, the ATLAS muon spectrometer group includes members from China, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Russia and the United States of America. For them, this event marks the end of more than a decade of development, planning and construction of the muon spectrometer system. The shielding elements of the small wheels have been constructed in Armenia and Serbia.
The ATLAS collaboration will focus now on commissioning work in preparation for the start-up of the LHC this summer. Experiments at the LHC will allow physicists to take a big leap on a journey that started with Newton's description of gravity. Gravity is ubiquitous since it acts on mass, but so far science is unable to explain why particles have the masses they have. Experiments such as ATLAS may provide the answer. LHC experiments will also probe the mysterious dark matter and energy of the Universe, they will investigate the reason for nature's preference for matter over antimatter, probe matter as it existed close to the beginning of time and look for extra dimensions of spacetime.
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