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Let mysteries of universe unfold

061711.SanfordLab04.jpg
Project engineer Bryce Pietzyk stands in the Davis Campus' Transition Cavity at the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake on Friday, June 17, 2011. The Transition Cavity will house mechanical and electrical systems, a common area, a clean room and a hallway. (Ryan Soderlin/Journal staff)

The public and scientific community both have reason to cheer about the latest news from the underground physics lab at the former Homestake Gold Mine in Lead.

The project is being retooled to a more affordable level, thereby securing its continued operation.

That's a far cry from its shaky status late last year when the National Science Foundation withdrew $29 million in funding for the lab, which operates at a cost of $1 million a month.

Without money to maintain the facility, it fills with water, an unacceptable outcome that would wash down the drain more than $165 million already invested in the lab.

That was then.

This is now.

The National Research Council last week issued a report endorsing the project, saying research involving dark matter and subatomic particles called neutrinos will help maintain the United States' leadership role in science and possibly unlock our understanding of the universe.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy budget for the next fiscal year earmarks $15 million for the Homestake project.

Scientists expect that funding to pave the way to complete work on the labs and start operations next year.

The lab will operate on a smaller scale than originally planned, but adapting the project to meet current economic conditions has been an important key to keeping the project alive.

The Department of Energy advised the lab to scale back the giant program originally envisioned by the National Science Foundation.

The Deep Underground Science & Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL) was conceived as a very large, dark, deep and expensive facility, descending as deep as 7,400 feet beneath the ground and costing upwards of $1 billion.

Current plans call for experiments at the 4,850-foot level, significantly cutting the cost of operation in an environment prone to constant flooding.

In recognition of its smaller scale, the lab is now being called the Sanford Underground Research Facility.

Regardless of its scope or acronym, the research conducted there requires an environment shielded from cosmic radiation that can muck up experiments.

Hundreds of jobs, millions of dollars in economic growth, and America's competitive edge in science are wrapped up in the future of the lab.

Homestake - along with others in Canada, Japan and Italy - are changing fundamental theories about how the universe works.

The research conducted there eventually could have applications in the advancement of medicine, communications, materials and other fields of science.

We commend the scientists and state officials who worked so hard to keep the project alive.

While it may take years for the lab to unlock some mysteries of the universe, we fully expect that day to eventually come.

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