After months of testing, the Large Hadron Collider research program has started at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) laboratory on the Franco–Swiss border. Accelerating particles and colliding them at 7 trillion electron volts - just half of its full capacity, but already three and a half times the energy previously achieved by the most powerful particle accelerator in the United States - scientists at LHC are now hoping to answer fundamental questions on the nature of our universe.
As the largest particle accelerator ever built, the LHC sparked some controversy prior to its inauguration when German biochemist Otto Rössler and others advanced the hypothesis that the high-energy collisions taking place at the facility might create a black hole potentially capable of destroying our planet. Such claims were however soon analyzed and firmly rejected on the grounds that similar collisions are known to spontaneously take place elsewhere in the universe without adverse effects.
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The experiments taking place at the LHC allow scientists to observe the behavior of atomic particles just a tiny fraction of a second after the collision. The huge amount of data they collect will hopefully uncover important details on the birth of the Universe, dark matter and the elusive Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle" whose proof of existence or non-existence would dramatically improve our understanding of quantum physics.
"We've all been impressed with the way the LHC has performed so far," said Guido Tonelli, spokesperson of the CMS experiment, "and it's particularly gratifying to see how well our particle detectors are working while our physics teams worldwide are already analysing data."
CERN has traditionally operated all of its accelerators on an annual cycle, running for seven to eight months with a four to five month shutdown each year. However, the sheer size of the structure as well as particularly low temperatures at which it operates brought to the CERN's decision to move to a longer cycle with longer periods of operation accompanied by longer shutdown periods when needed.
The LHC will therefore keep running for 18 to 24 months, after which it will shut down for routine maintenance and to complete the work needed to reach the LHC's design energy of 14 TeV.
"Two years of continuous running is a tall order both for the LHC operators and the experiments, but it will be well worth the effort," said Heuer. "By starting with a long run and concentrating preparations for 14 TeV collisions into a single shutdown, we're increasing the overall running time over the next three years, making up for lost time and giving the experiments the chance to make their mark."