The world's biggest particle collider is set to accelerate its first beam of protons on Sept. 10, according to the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
The organization, which goes by the French acronym CERN, said the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has completed a cool down phase and is now ready for a few final tests before it begins accelerating, and later colliding, particle beams.
"We're finishing a marathon with a sprint," said LHC project leader Lyn Evans in a statement. "It's been a long haul, and we're all eager to get the LHC research program underway."
The LHC is expected to be the most powerful tool yet for physicists hoping to uncover the secrets behind the laws of the universe, both on the tiny scale of quantum mechanics and the huge areas affected by galaxies and black holes.
The collider, which lies in a 27 kilometre-long circuit underground beneath the Franco-Swiss border, has been built at an estimated cost of $9 billion Cdn.
How it will work
The accelerator will push two proton beams using a ring of super-cooled magnets to speeds and energies never before reached under controlled conditions and crash them into one another to create and detect a host of new particles.
When running at its peak, the LHC will be able to push particles at a top energy of seven tera-electron volts (TeV), or seven million-million electron volts.
But for its first test on Sept. 10, the LHC will be running with an injection energy of 450 GeV, or 0.45 TeV. Once the circulating beams have been established — likely in 2009 — the accelerator will move to higher energies.
Thousands of researchers from around the world will be working at the LHC to interpret the results of its particle collisions.
In particular, they will be looking for signs of the Higgs boson, a previously undetected particle thought to impart mass. Scientists have been searching for it since it was first proposed as part of the Standard Model of physics, a theory used to explain the interaction between electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces, which — along with gravity — make up the four fundamental forces of nature.
The detection or lack of detection of this and other particles and even extra dimensions could help scientists back up or disprove current theories of the universe and give us a better understanding of the origin and composition of the universe.
Protesters predict disaster
The project has also attracted protests in Europe from people who fear the particle collider will trigger a disaster, with some scenarios suggesting the accelerator will create a black hole that will swallow the Earth.
The CERN physicists have dismissed these claims, with Evans saying in June: "Obviously, the world will not end when the LHC switches on."
Cliff Burgess, a physics and astronomy professor at McMaster University and associate member of the Waterloo-Ont.-based Perimeter Institute, said the collisions at LHC won't be very different from the collisions of cosmic rays and other particles that hit the Earth and travel across the universe.
"We understand well how a lot of stars work and have some understanding of how pulsars work, and none of that got screwed up by cosmic rays hitting them," said Burgess. "And cosmic rays can hit at much higher energies."
Burgess said even if black holes were created in the LHC, they would almost certainly be tiny and evaporate in the form of radiation.