Sanford Lab: Discovering Science Pt 1

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LEAD, S.D. -

LEAD, S.D. - In the small town of Lead, there sits one of the most advanced research facilities in the country.

The main campus of Sanford Underground Research Facility is located 4,850 feet - or just under a mile - below the surface. Within the Davis Campus, scientists are conducting physics and space research to help people understand where we fit in the vast universe.

The MAJORANA experiment is part of an international effort to help understand why the universe exists as we know it. Scientists believe the search for neutrinoless double-beta decay could point them in the right direction.

"The issue of why we are here, how the universe evolved - neutrinos play a key role in that,” said Dr. Steven Elliott, a fellow from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

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Elliot describes a neutrino as a sub-atomic particle that is created by beta decay. When a neutron decays into an electron and an antineutron, you get a neutrino out. When beta decay occurs, the nucleus of an atom emits an electron and neutron. But when double beta decay occurs, the nucleus might emit two electrons. This is possible if two neutrons within the nucleus of an atom simultaneously decays to emit two electrons.

Geranium used in the MAJORANA experiment

“To understand that role, we need to understand the characteristics of the neutrino," Elliot said. "For example, we don't know the neutrino's mass. We don't know whether or not it is its own antiparticle. These are things that are easy to learn about the other particles, like the electron. The electron has an electric charge and is much easier to study as a result."

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If a neutrino has its own antiparticle, it could explain why the universe after the Big Bang is mostly matter. That means there is almost no antimatter present unless it is created in a lab or from the sun's cosmic rays. But scientists believe that wasn’t the case during the Big Bang.

"That asymmetry was not there at the Big Bang,” Elliot said. “When the Big Bang took place, there were equal amounts of each. And over time, some small fraction of matter survived over antimatter. And that is the great mystery of physics these days. We don't really understand why that happened."

Particle accelerator at Sanford Lab

If neutrinoless double-beta decay does occur, the electrons will carry all the energy in the process. This could lead to valuable insight whether a neutrino is its own antiparticle. Known subatomic particles such as the electron and protons, all have their own antiparticle with a distinct electrical charge. Scientists are still not sure if neutrinos truly have a neutral charge.

"Neutrinos are extremely neutral...they may or may not have an antiparticle. There may not be a distinct particle that would be called an antineutrino. We don't know the answer to that question at this point, whether or not neutrinos are truly neutral. That is, there is no way to distinguish them between an antiparticle or whether or not there are antineutrinos."

The MAJORANA experiment is about to kick into high gear. Sanford Lab recently installed shielding that will protect it from outside radiation. Over the next three years, scientists will be collecting and analyzing data. Elliott says most experiments like this lead to more questions than answers.

All three parts of NewsCenter1's Sanford Lab: Discovering Science will be posted here.

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