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LEAD | We are smart, yet we know so little.

In the late 19th century, scientists believed they had a thorough understanding of our universe and the natural world that surrounds mankind on earth.

But small-scale studies of atoms and quantum mechanics shifted that confidence and altered our perceptions of the universe in a manner still being realized.

“We went from feeling very spunky about knowing things to `Oh, we have a lot to learn,’” said Berkeley Labs dark-matter guru Kevin Lesko, who looks like a rock star and is, in fact, a rock star in the world of physics.

“Consider this,” Lesko explained. “Everything we know and everything we see is about 1 percent of the universe. The remaining 99 percent is a mystery. We’re here to find out about the rest of the 99 percent.”

As one of the world’s leading investigators in the search for elusive dark matter, which accounts for about 23 percent of our universe, Lesko spent 33 hours over four days last week nearly a mile beneath the earth’s surface at the Sanford Underground Research Facility, the deepest underground lab in the U.S.

“We are pursuing research into the fundamental characteristics of the nature of the universe, trying to understand the world we live in,” he said. “Think of the universe as a map, and most of that map is now blank.”

Financial foundation

In 2006, Homestake Gold Mine donated its 125-year-old, 8,000-foot-deep gold mine in Lead to the state of South Dakota for use as a research facility, the same year billionaire philanthropist T. Denny Sanford ponied up $70 million to make the scientific center a reality. The state Legislature followed with an additional $40 million commitment.

Then true science began.

Building on Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ray Davis’s experiments conducted in the mid-1960s at the 4,850-foot level of the former mine, technicians expanded the underground research facility by excavating 18,000 tons of rock for the Davis Campus. After its dedication in May 2012, the campus began attracting physicists and other scientists from around the world.

Last October, scientists unveiled the initial findings of their Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment, the most sensitive and sophisticated dark matter detector in the world. Collaborators included 100 researchers representing 17 universities, as well as national laboratories in the U.S., U.K. and Portugal.

The next step

Last week, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation announced the two federal agencies would fund the second-generation dark matter detector known as the LUX-ZEPLIN or “LZ” at the Sanford Lab. The detector will be 20 times larger and 1,000 times more sensitive than the initial detector, officials said.

More impressive still is the anticipated $30 million federal investment in the LZ, the importance to the Black Hills’ economy, and the message it sends to would-be underground researchers scattered around the globe.  The LZ, slated to go online in 2018, already involves 128 scientists and engineers and 29 institutions in the U.S., U.K., Portugal and Russia, said Mike Headley, director of the Sanford Lab and executive director of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority.

“Simply, DOE will be interested in keeping the lab funded and open if there is relevant science occurring here, science that is compelling,” Headley said. “The type of science occurring here now is cutting edge, world class. Without significant experiments, DOE has no real reason to fund the operations of the lab. That’s why we’re here.”

In its first decade of operation the SDSTA, which oversees the Sanford Lab, spent more than $110 million in South Dakota, engaged 1,165 contractors and suppliers, and had an average annual budget of $21.4 million.

Last year, the lab had a payroll of $12.3 million and today employs 125 full-time workers, about half of whom are former Homestake employees who maintain the facility by operating hoists, water pumps and air circulation systems that allow scientists to do their work deep underground in “the quietest place on earth.”

Longer lab life

Myriad experiments slated for the Sanford Lab that are now being manufactured or are on the drawing board have the potential to extend the facility’s life by at least three decades, Headley explained.

For the last three years, workers in surgically clean rooms deep in the bowels of the former gold mine have been growing the world’s purest copper and building and assembling components for the Majorana Demonstrator Experiment, which has a multi-million-dollar budget.

The Majorana, set to go online later this year, will assist scientists in studying neutrino-less double-beta decay, a rare form of nuclear decay. It also will help scientists determine the mass of a neutrino, which no one has yet accurately measured, and whether neutrinos are their own anti-particle, Headley said.

Hundreds of collaborators are involved in still another major research project at Sanford — the Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE), which carries a staggering $1.5 billion price tag. Headley noted $275 million of that budget will be spent in South Dakota on construction alone. Up to a third of the project is expected to be funded by foreign partners, he added.

Headley said the LBNE, on a par with the Large Hadron Collider in Cern, Switzerland, and some of the largest experiments conducted by scientists anywhere in history, involves 518 collaborators from 88 institutions in eight countries.

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The experiment is intended to allow scientists a mile underground at Sanford to capture neutrinos fired through the earth from the Fermi Lab near Chicago. It is anticipated to be deployed in 2017, but monitoring is expected to last decades.

“In rough terms, the operation could go on for a long time, well beyond 30 years,” Headley said. “So, operations and maintenance represent a large chunk of cash, too. Over that period of time, the financial benefit to South Dakota could represent hundreds of millions of dollars.”

In support of the LBNE, crews have been working to provide a secondary access to the underground campus via the Ross Shaft, which is being refurbished. Last week, crews reached the 1,800-foot level, about a third of the way through the $25 million project that is expected to be completed in 2017, about the time LBNE construction would begin, Headley said.

“The Ross Shaft also would help bring rock to surface to allow the Majorano to proceed,” he said. “It will allow these gems to come to life.”

Solving mysteries

Previous research in physics, some conducted by the Lawrence brothers, natives of Canton in eastern South Dakota, has led to advances in medical imaging devices, treatments for cancer and other medical applications that have become part of our everyday life.

According to Headley and Lesko, the importance of understanding what may well account for nearly a quarter of the universe cannot be understated.

“I can’t tell you exactly what will come out of what we are doing today, but these types of experiments are incredibly competitive,” said Headley.  “They involve scientific research, but they’re also are about economic development, global competitiveness and growing a stable of really smart people in these areas that will help countries remain competitive.

“China is in this game,” he added. “To remain competitive in these areas, we need to make investments because other nations around the world are. These are big questions in the make-up of our universe; questions that we believe will have implications far into the future.”

For Lesko, who said he has a particular affinity for research underground, believes the work being done deep in the Black Hills will change the way each of us views the universe.

“We are on the threshold of major discovery, a revolution at a time in which most of the universe isn’t known,” he said, shaking his head in wonderment. “We have the opportunity to know much more about the universe we live in.”

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