Page last updated at 17:23 GMT, Thursday, 7 August 2008 18:23 UK

Cern lab set for beam milestone

By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News

Cern magnet (M. Brice/Cern)
The magnets are linked up in a chain for 27km

A vast physics experiment - the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - reaches a key milestone this weekend ahead of an official start-up on 10 September.

On 9 August, protons will be piped through LHC magnets for the first time.

Engineers had previously brought a beam of protons - tiny, sub-atomic particles - to the "doorstep" of the LHC.

The most powerful physics experiment ever built, the LHC will re-create the conditions present in the Universe just after the Big Bang.

It's been a long-haul, and we're all eager to get the LHC research programme underway
Lyn Evans, LHC project leader
There are over 5,000 magnets arranged end-to-end in a ring that runs for 27km through a giant tunnel under the French Swiss border.

Once the LHC is fully operational, two proton beams will be fired down pipes running through these magnets. These beams will then be steered in opposite directions around the main ring at close to the speed of light.

At allotted points along the tunnel, the beams will cross paths, smashing into one another with cataclysmic force. Scientists hope to see new particles in the debris of these collisions, revealing fundamental new insights into the nature of the cosmos and how it came into being.

Precision timing

For the two-day "synchronisation test", engineers will thread a low intensity beam through the injection system and one of the LHC's eight sectors.

These two sectors have now reached a sufficient level of readiness to handle the energetic stream of particles, and this opened up the opportunity to run the test.

The purpose of the test is to help ensure that the LHC is working in step with its "injector", known as the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) accelerator.

Atlas pixel barrel (Cern)
Each detector is the sum of many complicated elements
Before a beam can be fired into the main ring, the proton beams have to be boosted to high energies in a chain of particle accelerators, or injectors.

The SPS is the last link in this chain; it is from here that protons are fed directly into the LHC ring via two "injection lines" - one for each beam.

"The aim is to get the timings right between the two machines and in order to do that we will take some beam into sector 2-3," said Roberto Saban, the LHC's head of hardware commissioning.

Cern, the organisation that operates the collider, said it will attempt to circulate two proton beams all the way around the ring on 10 September. This is considered the giant lab's official "switch-on".

Beam collision

"It's been a long haul, and we're all eager to get the LHC research programme underway," said Lyn Evans, the project leader.

This full beam injection will take place at an energy of about 450 gigaelectronvolts (GeV). Over subsequent weeks, engineers will gradually boost the energy and fine tune the machine.

Roberto Saban said that in order to obtain high magnetic fields with a modest power consumption, the LHC's magnets are required to be "superconducting".

This is the property, exhibited by some materials at very low temperatures, to channel electrical current with zero resistance and very little power loss.

This requires cooling the magnets to a temperature of 1.9 Kelvin (-271C; -456F). Six out of eight sectors are currently at their operating temperatures; cooling of the remaining two should be completed in the next few weeks.

Over August, scientists will continue electrical testing of the LHC hardware prior to circulating beams in early September.

This phase will continue through the month to ensure that the entire machine is capable of accelerating and colliding beams at an energy of five teraelectronvolts (TeV).

Once stable, circulating beams have been established, they will be smashed together - in preparation for the LHC's science phase.

BBC Radio 4 will broadcast live from Cern on 10 September. The Big Bang Day starts in the LHC control room at 0830 BST for the official start-up, and then continues through the day with related programmes, from indepth discussions about particle physics to a special one-off radio version of the popular TV drama Torchwood.

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