Scientists hope to detect evidence of dark matter
Scientists in a tiny lab at the bottom of Britain's deepest mine could beat the £5bn "Big Bang" project to crack one of the Universe's great mysteries.
The team at Boulby on the edge of the North York Moors hope to detect dark matter - hypothetical particles thought to make up much of the Universe.
They are competing against the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva.
A researcher at Boulby said: "It is a race in the astrophysics community to directly observe dark matter."
One of the LHC's aims is to detect evidence of the existence of dark matter, which is believed to exist all around us and throughout space.
Proving its existence would account for some of the vast amount of "missing matter" we can see only by its effect on visible matter.
The scientists operating the LHC, a 27km (16.8 mile) circumference particle accelerator built beneath the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, expect to trace dark matter within two years.
But their rivals at Boulby potash mine, based in a £2m underground laboratory, a kilometre underground on the coast near Whitby, could succeed in half that time.
At 1,100m (3,600ft) the mine in east Cleveland is so deep it is shielded from cosmic rays that would distort the project's readings.
Researchers from Edinburgh University and Imperial College London and STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory have, with US, Portuguese and Russian collaboration, built at the bottom of Boulby potash mine two of the most sensitive astro-particle detection machines known to science.
Both of their detectors are looking for "Wimps" - weakly interacting massive particles - which are as yet unobserved sub-atomic particles scientists believe may account for dark matter.
The LHC machine has taken 10 years to build and is roughly the size of London Underground's Circle Line.
In contrast, the Boulby laboratory's Zeplin III detector is 100m long by three metres high and five wide.
The kilometre of rock above the equipment means there is a million times less interference than on the surface.
Boulby researcher Dr Sean Paling, of Sheffield University, said: "Every so often a Wimp will bounce off an atom in the detectors, creating a tiny signal.
"Without other particles battering the instruments, we hope to pinpoint Wimps when they make these very rare interactions with normal matter.
"The LHC collider in Geneva hopes to create Wimps from other particles. But what we are doing is different.
"We want to observe them as they occur 'in the wild' - which will prove they exist naturally and that they surround us."