A cutaway image of the LHC.
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At a cost of $9 billion spent over 25 years punctuated by delays and repairs, the largest machine ever built is up and running, and smashing both particles and records.
Researchers at CERN's Large Hadron Collider set a record Tuesday by smashing two protons together in a head-on collision and releasing 7 trillion electronic volts (7 TeV) of energy -- three times more than the previous record.
The achievement came with the LHC operating at partial force, it won't operate at full throttle until 2013.
The LHC is housed in a 17-mile, circular tunnel 300 feet beneath the French/Swiss border, and is immense both in size and in purpose. Kurt Anderson describes a couple of its supersized attributes:
"At the center of just one of the four main experimental stations installed around its circumference, and not even the biggest of the four, is a magnet that generates a magnetic field 100,000 times as strong as Earth’s. And because the super-conducting, super-colliding guts of the collider must be cooled by 120 tons of liquid helium, inside the machine it’s one degree colder than outer space, thus making the L.H.C. the coldest place in the universe."
Researchers hope to use the LHC to test the Big Bang theory and other theories about the origins of matter, mass, and the universe. The idea is to recreate events similar to those believed to have occurred when the universe formed, and to study the data for clues to the origin of the universe.
The LHC could also provide evidence of dark matter, or invisible matter in between galaxies and may reveal unexpected information leading to new theories about creation.
The massive project is expected to produce roughly 15 million GB of data annually for analysis by scientists around the globe.
Reassurances from scientists notwithstanding, the tin-foil hat brigade has railed against the search for the so-called "God particle," fearing researchers would form black holes large enough to bring on doomsday.
As scientists began testing CERN's Large Hadron Collider in late 2008, hackers made a mockery of the European lab's network security. Days later, a liquid helium leak brought research to a halt for 18 months.
Operators plan to run the collider nearly continuously for the next 18 to 24 months. In late 2011 the LHC will be shut down for a year so that it may be prepared to operate at full capacity in 2013.