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Science through 2043

Despite federal budget concerns, scientists move forward with major experiment plans

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Posted: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 11:30 am

LEAD — Concerns about federal funding for basic research are very real among the scientific community, but scientists continue to make plans for a future at the Sanford Lab.

Dr. Kevin Lesko, the lead scientist for the project to build the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF), told the S.D. Science and Technology Authority, the Sanford Lab's governing board, that the scientific community is cautiously optimistic about the future of physics research.

Lesko reported that the scientific community is currently in the process of setting priorities and establishing long-range plans and priorities for the next 10 years — a process that is regularly done in the physics community. There is a lot of focus on the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE), which proposes to ultimately shoot a beam of neutrinos from Fermilab near Chicago, through the earth to the Sanford Lab. By doing this, scientists plan to study how neutrinos change form in transit and more fully understand the properties of this ghost-like particle.

But with an original overall price tag of more than $1 billion, the LBNE has been closely examined over the last year as scientists have grappled with ways to phase the project to decrease the short-term cost while maintaining a scientifically attractive project. Earlier this year the Department of Energy's Office of Science asked the Fermilab to develop schemes to phase the experiment to fit a total budget of $800 million, not to exceed $120 million in any given year. That process was completed this summer, with scientists proposing the idea to place a detector filled with 10 kilotons of liquid argon in a surface facility at Kirk Canyon in Lead. Currently scientists are examining the Kirk Canyon site to make sure it will fit their needs for the detector.

Lesko said the Department of Energy's Office of Science has accepted the proposal, which is good progress, and scientists have started to develop their conceptual design report, which the DOE plans to review in October. The phase would cost about $800 million, and under the plan scientists will still look forward to the day when they can move the detector 4,850 feet underground, at a cost of $130 million.

Sanford Lab Executive Director Ron Wheeler said scientists with the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment don't plan to start conducting science at the Sanford Lab until 2023. Once it is established, he said, the LBNE is projected to run through 2043. That kind of a long-range experiment is exactly what the Sanford Lab looks forward to in order to secure its future.

In addition to the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment, Lesko said the high energy physics community has already requested proposals for the next generation of dark matter detector. At least one of those proposals, and a strong contender in the race, includes replacing the current Large Underground Xenon dark matter detector with a much larger, much more sophisticated LUX-ZEPLIN detector, using existing infrastructure in the Davis Campus of the Sanford Lab, 4,850 feet underground.

Lesko also reported that the National Science Foundation has advanced funding for an astrophysics experiment called DIANA (Dual Ion Accelerator for Nuclear Astrophysics.) That experiment, also proposed for the Sanford Lab, comes from the University of Notre Dame and is designed to study the reactions that take place inside the sun in order to understand how stars work.

Overall, Lesko reported that despite budget concerns in Washington, the scientific community is proceeding with cautious optimism — news that fares well for the Sanford Lab.

“There are concerns about the budgets and what sort of investment we are going to have in fundamental research,” Lesko said on Thursday. “But we still have the most exciting situation here at Homestake. Thank you for all of your support.”

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