Neutrino experiment planned for Kirk Canyon

Shown here, circled, is the proposed side for the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment in Kirk Canyon. During a recent Department of Energy meeting, LBNE collaborators chose Kirk Canyon as the preferred site for the multi-million dollar experiment. Now scientists and engineers will study whether the site is conducive for the experiment. Courtesy photo

LEAD — Scientists with the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment are in the early stages of making plans to build their multi-million dollar experiment in Kirk Canyon, and they are preparing to embark on a search for international funds to move the experiment underground at Homestake.

Dr. Robert Svoboda, of the University of California-Davis and a leading scientist with the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment, said Friday that the major experiment planned for Homestake is moving forward with their plans to build the first part of a project that will ultimately total nearly $1 billion. Previously this year, the U.S. Department of Energy asked scientists with the experiment to come up with a phased approach for building the project, due to federal budget constraints. The DOE asked that scientists design phases that would fit within the existing budget, but that would yield continuing science, until the larger, more involved experiment could be built underground.

At its full potential, the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment involves constructing a massive cavern with support infrastructure and utilities 4,850 feet underground at Homestake, where a neutrino detector would be built. Additionally, it has scientists building a new neutrino beam that would shoot the tiny, subatomic particles from Fermilab, near Chicago, down to the detector 4,850 feet underground in Homestake. The purpose of the experiment is to determine the mass of neutrinos and to study how neutrinos change form in transit.

Homestake has long been lauded as the preferred site for the experiment because of its distance from Fermilab, as well as because of its depth. Scientists say that the distance from Lead to Fermilab is perfect for the measurements they want to take from the neutrino beam.

But when the DOE asked the collaboration to phase their experiment, a steering committee of more than 20 scientists was formed to determine the best site for the first phase of the experiment - a site that would still allow science to be conducted. After studying the facts, the committee was one vote shy of unanimously selecting Kirk Canyon, on the Sanford Lab surface, as the site for early neutrino science and the first phase of the LBNE.

“On the surface you can only do the physics of the neutrino beam,” Svoboda said. “You won't be able to do all of the other stuff we'd like to do, like look at supernovae and things.”

Svoboda cautioned that Kirk Canyon is a candidate site, and that the project could still be built somewhere else if the land is not conducive to hosting the experiment. Scientists will spend the next year making that determination as they study the land at Kirk Canyon and make cost estimates.

“The DOE told LBNE to go ahead to the next planning phase before the end of this year,” Svoboda said. “But the catch is to fit within that budget they gave us. We can't afford to go underground, we have to do it in Kirk Canyon.”

Neutrino detection is nearly impossible on the earth's surface because of cosmic ray interference, which is why neutrino scientists have been pushing to build the underground laboratory.  However, Svoboda said since scientists can time exactly when the neutrinos will arrive in Lead from the beam in Chicago, they can see the subatomic particles because they know exactly where and when to look. Designs and engineering plans for the experiment are still in the development stages, but Svoboda said the Kirk Canyon experiment will likely include some warehouse-type buildings with basements, where the neutrino detectors will be housed at least 10 feet underground. A set of detailed plans and cost estimates, Svoboda said, will take a couple of years to prepare.

With a total project cost of $800 million, and another $130 million in infrastructure and related costs to move it underground, Svoboda said members of the LBNE collaboration plan to use these next few years wisely, and spend some time soliciting international funds for the experiment. Major science experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider enjoy international funding, and though LBNE is only a fraction of the collider's costs, Svoboda said it is a major physics experiment that the world is interested in pursuing. Therefore, LBNE members are soliciting funds from various countries in Europe, Canada and southern Africa. Additionally they are asking for money from South America, Japan and possibly China.

“It's a very large physics project and it would be strange if there were not contributions from other countries,” he said.

Svoboda said members of the LBNE Collaboration plan to meet with the DOE Financial Committee this October to present their estimates for this first phase of the project. If those estimates are approved, officials will move into the detailed engineering and design of the project, a process that could take up to two years.  

But the good news is that since the LBNE has made it past this first funding hurdle, it is now considered a continuing project for the DOE. That means that if the Congress ever holds the budget up for a continuing resolution, LBNE funds will not be affected.

“The important thing is that we're approved,” Svoboda said. “We're approved and we have our preferred site, so that's a huge step. So, unless something funky happens I think by the end of this year we will be on our way.”

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