GENEVA (Reuters) - New data on the origins of the universe is pouring in so quickly that physicists may extend the current opening phase of their “Big Bang” project to the end of 2012, directors of the CERN research center said.
An extension, to be decided in late January, could lead to an early discovery of the elusive Higgs boson believed to have turned an amorphous mass of particles into solid matter at the birth of the cosmos.
“There is a big window for new discoveries opening up and we want to ensure the momentum of these past few months is maintained,” said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer, who overseas the centre’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiments.
“We have confirmed this year all that we thought we knew about the physical universe, and now we are moving into new territory,” his deputy, Research Director Sergio Bertolucci, added. “We are looking toward the known unknowns and also things we may not even have thought about.”
Heuer and Bertolucci spoke as CERN engineers began to close down the giant, subterranean LHC and its huge detector magnets — which smash particles together at all but the speed of light and make up the world’s biggest scientific project — until next February for winter fine-tuning.
In a further confidence boost, CERN experts reported on Thursday to a packed hall of enthusiastic — and mainly young — researchers the recreation of a super-hot “quark-gluon plasma” believed to have been the totality of the cosmos a fraction of a second after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.
For the first time, activity of the two elementary particles within the plasma was clearly tracked and a phenomenon called “jet quenching” was observed, giving hints on how matter evolved into stars, planets and eventually life on Earth.
The results were achieved after only days of colliding lead ions in the LHC at ultra-high energies producing temperatures some 500,000 times hotter than the core of the sun.
The “mini Big Bangs” created were of even greater intensity than the collisions of hydrogen protons of the LHC’s first seven months of operation.
With hydrogen protons, the CERN physicists re-established for the scientific community the validity of what is known as the Standard Model, a group of theories that brings together everything presently understood about fundamental particles and the forces that influence them.
After the two-month break, CERN researchers will resume colliding particles at impact energies of up to 7 Tera-electron Volts (TeV) in the LHC’s 27-kilometre (16.8 mile) ring tunnel buried under the French and Swiss border near Geneva.
The 7 TeV threshold was originally to have been maintained to the end of 2011, when the LHC was to have been shut down for a year before restarting at twice that collision intensity.
Heuer told Reuters that, if an extension is approved by CERN’S (European Center for Nuclear Research) 20-nation governing Council, the collision energy could be increased to 8 TeV until the end of 2012, further increasing the chances of tracking the Higgs boson in the near future.
“The LHC is functioning so well, far beyond our expectations. So if we can add a year now and increase the energy without any added risk, why should we not do it?” he asked. An extension to end-2012 would mean the machine closes down in 2013 and resumes at the full 14 TeV velocity in 2014.
CERN chiefs and LHC scientists and engineers have been highly conscious of the risks of pushing their highly complex machine too hard since an initial launch in September 2008 was aborted within a few days when connecting cabling and valves burst under stress, causing significant damage.
Editing by Laura MacInnis, Ron Askew