At Old Mine, Hopes Of Striking Gold With Dark Matter A mile-deep mine in South Dakota was closed a decade ago. Now, it's been cleaned up and revamped as an underground science laboratory. Scientists hope the experiments thousands of feet underground will help prove the existence of dark matter.

At Old Mine, Hopes Of Striking Gold With Dark Matter

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. South Dakota is about to enter the global race to prove the existence of dark matter. Some scientists theorize that it makes up a good chunk of the universe. The LUX Dark Matter Detector is being installed almost a mile underground in a former gold mine recently converted into a laboratory. The LUX is the biggest experiment of its kind, and scientists around the world are watching. As South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Charles Michael Ray reports, state officials hope the focus on science leads to a boom for South Dakota.

MICHAEL RAY, BYLINE: You could think of the race for dark matter a bit like NASCAR.


RAY: If you want to win a car race, you try to build a better racecar. So, if you want to win the race to prove the existence of dark matter, you try to build a better detector. And in this race, better generally means bigger and deeper underground.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (unintelligible).

RAY: This steel cage is dropping me almost a mile underground into the Sanford Lab at Homestake. It's formerly the deepest underground gold mine in North America. When it closed about a decade ago, state officials hoped that underground science could spur economic development here, including spin-off industries to support the labs massive underground infrastructure along with expanded on-site university classes. After years of work, the facility opened this summer. Richard Gaitskell, lead researcher on the LUX dark matter experiment, is standing in part of the new lab built for this research.

RICHARD GAITSKELL: This laboratory really is truly exceptional and it will ensure that we're able to do a dark matter experiment really like no other.

RAY: Underground labs are needed for experiments like this one, which are designed to detect particular kinds of subatomic particles. Being underground helps block out some of the other particles streaming through space, such as cosmic rays. Physicists say the United States has trailed in this sort of science - Japan, Italy, and Canada have underground labs of their own. Tom Nelson is the mayor here and says the lab has already made a difference to the local economy, bringing in about 200 new workers.

TOM NELSON: We're seeing people from Case Western, from Brown University, Texas A&M, of course Berkley, not in the numbers we had anticipated but we're still young. It's still got a way to go.

RAY: The LUX Dark Matter detector is essentially a collaboration among 17 institutions, researchers say it's one of about a dozen entrants in the global race to directly detect dark matter. One of the other groups is the Xenon 100 Experiment, located deep underground in Italy's Gran Sasso Laboratory. Katsushi Arisaka is a physics professor at UCLA who works on that experiment. He says when it comes to hunting dark matter, size matters. The bigger the target the more likely a dark matter particle will be found.

KATSUSHI ARISAKA: It is quite exciting time for the LUX. We are already started to make even bigger detectors, 10 times bigger than the LUX. It is a real interesting race.

RAY: There's lot's riding on this race, not only in the scientific community but also in South Dakota. The state invested $40 million dollars in building the underground lab that now houses LUX and other experiments. It's banking on long-term federal funding to pay the million dollars a month it takes to keep the facility open. Still, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard considers the lab a safe bet.

DENNIS DAUGAARD: Great rewards sometimes take risk, but the future is still wide open. We think it's important as a landlord to build the building and I think we'll start attracting tenants.

RAY: Officials here hope for a Nobel-type discovery in any of the experiments housed in the new lab - a big breakthrough that could help solidify funding. It's a hope that's not all that far-fetched. After all, the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics went to Ray Davis, whose neutrino experiments were done here when it was a gold mine. Today, researchers nearly a mile underground in South Dakota are again trying to attain extraordinary results. For NPR News I'm Charles Michael Ray in Rapid City, South Dakota.

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