A key experiment of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, has been tuned up to boost its hunt for signs of the next big physics phenomenon.
The largest particle accelerator in the world is the powerful force behind breakthroughs in physics, including confirming in 2012 that the Higgs boson indeed exists, but at the end of the day, it remains a machine that needs to be maintained and upgraded.
The LHC Explained
In what they considered the first major LHC upgrade, officials announced the replacement of the pixel tracker inside the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a particle physics detector built as part of the 17-mile-long equipment and located 328 feet underground within French territory.
The LHC pushes two particle beams to near-speed of light and smashes them together such that experts can detect signs of new physics occurrences in the debris, including new sub-atomic particles.
Over 1,200 so-called dipole magnets direct the powerful beam around the tunnel, and at specific points around the ring, the beams cross and let collisions occur. CMS, Atlas, and other major experiments record the results of these beam encounters, producing over 10 million gigabytes of data each year.
Upgraded Pixel Tracker
The pixel tracker of the CMS is tasked to disentangle as well as reconstruct the paths of particles that emerge from the wreckage of the collision. It was upgraded March 2, Thursday, to improve the particle-hunting capabilities of the machine.
"This operation, started on Tuesday Feb. 28 when the first components of the new instrument were descended into the experiment’s cavern, is one of the most significant milestones ahead of the LHC restart this spring,” announced CERN in a statement.
Think of it as replacing your 66-megapixel camera with a 124-megapixel one, explained CMS technical coordinator Austin Ball to BBC News. To put it simply, the pixel detector images particles superimposed on top of each other, which need to be taken apart.
With LHC’s performance being beefed up in recent years, the scientists sought to process 50 to 60 superimposed pictures instead of 25 or 30 from the collision of protons with each other. This demanded an upgrade in technology, particularly a more powerful system to disentangle “the effects of having multiple collisions superimposed on top of each other,” Ball said.
The change is deemed necessary to harness the full potential of the LHC “for new physics,” Ball hoped.
Prospects For Particle Physics
Work on the experiment started just around Christmas as the LHC shut down for the winter. Replacing the pixel tracker is a painstaking process, where half of the upgrade was installed last Tuesday, Feb. 28, while the second half was placed on Thursday morning.
CMS and Atlas are staffed by separated teams, and together they offered the important clues leading to Higgs boson’s discovery.
This was the last massive component that forms the Standard Model, and now experts are awash with expectations of going beyond the theory to finally find evidence for the elusive dark matter or supersymmetry, a theorized extension to the SM alluding to novel sub-atomic particles.
The LHC and its experiments will continue undergoing maintenance and consolidation prior to the particle accelerator’s rebirth this spring.