Downed Hadron Collider faces $21M in repairs

Ka-ching! Getting damaged atom smasher online may take more money, time than expected

Fixing problems at the world's largest particle collider won't come cheap.

James Gillies, a spokesman for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (known as CERN), said in an e-mail to Computerworld today that officials are still working on a plan of action -- and a budget -- for repairing the Large Hadron Collider. So far, he added, it appears that it will cost $21 million or more to get the collider operational again.

Late in September, CERN disclosed that a faulty electrical connection had knocked the collider offline until next spring.

The problems came shortly after the collider's first test run on Sept. 10, when a particle beam shot fully around the 17-mile, underground vacuum-sealed tube. After that, another beam was shot around the tube going in the opposite direction.

That test was to be a precursor to the smashing of two beams in the tube, an action that researchers expect will re-create conditions in the universe just moments after its conception, giving scientists the chance to answer one of humanity's oldest questions: How was the universe created?

Before the wiring problem, the collision test was slated to take place this fall. It has since been pushed back until at least next spring. In the past few days, online reports have surfaced saying that the collider may be down until at least June. Gillies would not confirm or deny those reports, nor would he say exactly what fixes will be needed.

Shortly after the first test, CERN said that an electrical connection between two magnets had melted, causing a "large helium leak" in the tunnel. "At no time was there any risk to people," the agency said at the time.

As part of the investigation, technicians brought the affected area of the collider's tunnel to room temperature and the involved magnets had to be opened for inspection. After the work is complete, the entire area will need to be recooled.

The problem with the wiring came to light two weeks after a faulty transformer was replaced in the machine.

Early in October, shortly after the problems were disclosed, a U.S. federal judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking to halt experiments in the Large Hadron Collider.

The civil suit called for more safety reviews to be done before any experiments could be conducted at the collider. Chief Judge Helen Gillmor wrote in her decision that the U.S. federal courts do not have jurisdiction over the European-based collider, even though the project received $531 million in U.S. funding. Gillmor concluded that the U.S. contribution was not a "major federal action" because it accounted for less than 10% of the cost of constructing the collider.

Fears about the collider experiments reached such a furor that Frank Wilczek, an MIT physics professor and Nobel laureate, received death threats this fall because of his earlier involvement with the Large Hadron Collider.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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