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Move Over, Space Shuttle: There's a New Science Giant Cruising the U.S. This Summer

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Muon g-2 storage ring

Muon storage ring at Brookhaven. Credit: BNL

When NASA flew the shuttle prototype Enterprise through New York City last year, all we had to do was look out our windows at Scientific American one morning to watch it cruise past. Countless Americans got a look at one of the decommissioned shuttles as NASA paraded them around the country en route to their new homes at various museums. Part of the thrill was in getting close to the shuttles, of course, but there was also the appeal of seeing something so exotic gracing the mundane streets, the skies and the waterways of our cities.

But as large and heavy as the shuttles are, transporting them was relatively simple because their scientific lives were already over. The orbiters could withstand plenty of jostling and even a few accidental dings during shipping and handling.

Not so with a giant magnetic ring that is scheduled to traverse a good swath of the U.S. this summer. The 50-foot-wide ring, filled with superconducting coils, was built in the 1990s at Brookhaven National Laboratory on New York’s Long Island as part of an experiment to investigate the properties of the muon, a heavy, short-lived cousin of the electron. Physicists are planning to reuse the apparatus as a particle-storage ring for a new run of the experiment, called Muon g-2. The new iteration may be able to confirm an anomaly suggested by the Brookhaven data—specifically, that the muon’s spin reacts differently to a magnetic field than predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics.

The only catch is that the new experiment will take place at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Chicago, whose particle accelerators can produce better beams of muons. Building a new magnet there would cost far more than moving the old one. But pulling off the move will hardly be easy, as a statement from Brookhaven explains:

While most of the machine can be disassembled and brought to Fermilab in trucks, the massive electromagnet must be transported in one piece. It also cannot tilt or twist more than a few degrees, or the complex wiring inside will be irreparably damaged. The Muon g-2 team has devised a plan to make the 3,200-mile journey that involves loading the ring onto a specially prepared barge and bringing it down the East Coast, around the tip of Florida and up the Mississippi River to Illinois.

Muon g-2 ring model

A model demonstrates how a truck will pull the Muon g-2 ring (slowly) down the street. Credit: Fermilab

The move will begin in early June and end in late July. At either end of the barge trip the magnet will travel by truck, at a crawl of no more than 10 miles per hour. But the slow-moving road trip is scheduled for nighttime—one night in New York and two nights in Illinois—to limit the traffic impact. So if you want to get a glimpse at an exotic particle-physics apparatus cruising the streets, you’ll have to do more than just look out your window.

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

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