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Large Hadron Collider reaches an initial energy milestone


LHC, CERN, physicsThe embattled Large Hadron Collider (LHC) reached its first major milestone Monday as it accelerated its twin beams of protons to 1.18 TeV (more than one trillion electron volts) of energy, eclipsing the previous record of 0.98 TeV (tera–electron volts) of energy held by Fermi National Accelerator Lab's Tevatron in Batavia, Ill., since 2001, according to the European Organization for Nuclear Research, aka CERN.

The LHC's mission is to help scientists better understand the origins of the universe, explain why particles have mass and search for dark matter. Just 10 days ago, CERN woke the world's most powerful particle accelerator from a yearlong slumber, during which scientists repaired a helium leak caused by a faulty electrical connection. The LHC has already outlasted its previous run, which ended in September 2008, nine days after beams began circulating. Since that time CERN has been repairing, upgrading and recommissioning the machine.

Today's success nearly matched the 1.2 TeV of energy that CERN scientists had been shooting for as an initial target. The eventual goal is for the LHC to accelerate protons to seven TeV of energy, 7,000 times as much energy as a proton at rest has embodied in its mass, according to a February 2008 Scientific American special report on the LHC. At maximum strength, the LHC's circulating particles are expected to "carry energy roughly equal to the kinetic energy of about 900 cars traveling at 100 kilometers per hour, or enough to heat the water for nearly 2,000 liters of coffee," Scientific American reported.

The goal of the more than 5,000 scientists, engineers and students working on the project is to pass a number of milestones with the LHC—from one beam to two beams to colliding beams; from lower energies to the terascale; from weaker test intensities to stronger ones suitable for producing data at useful rates but more difficult to control, according to Scientific American. As the LHC ramps up, it is expected to work as an incredibly powerful microscope, allowing researchers to peer into the physics of the shortest distances (down to a nano-nanometer) and the highest energies ever probed.

CERN's next target is to increase the beam intensity to provide "meaningful proton-proton collision rates," the lab said in a news release. The current intensity level was chosen as a stepping stone, so that scientists could ensure that higher intensities can be safely handled and that stable conditions can be guaranteed for the experiments during collisions.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek echoed a common sentiment last year when he mentioned in Scientific American's LHC special report that the device could produce "a golden age of physics."

Image of scientists celebrating the LHC's record-breaking turn © CERN

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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