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Dark matter experiments planned for 2021

Australian scientists hope to start experiments to detect dark matter as early as next year, following the successful excavation of the site for the underground laboratory at the Stawell Gold Mines.

ANSTO announced that it is partnering with the Universities of Melbourne, Adelaide, Swinburne and the ANU in the construction and operation of the Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory (SUPL). The organisation brings its expertise in running large scale scientific infrastructure to the SUPL project.

While the search for dark matter is a core mission for SUPL, ANSTO’s main contribution relates to the extremely low background radiation environment needed to operate the SABRE Dark Matter detector.

ANSTO operates highly sensitive radiation detectors at its Lucas Heights campus, which are used for high precision measurements of very low levels of radiation from natural materials.

It is expected that the sensitivity of such measurements can be increased by a factor of 10 or more thanks to the ultra-low background levels which will be achieved in SUPL because it is located one kilometre underground, a Member of the Steering Project Committee said.

ANSTO health researchers are also interested in using SUPL to investigate the development of biological systems, such as cell cultures in the absence of background radiation.

The scientists are very much looking forward to the commissioning of SUPL, which will be the first underground physics laboratory in the Southern Hemisphere, and to the exciting discoveries, it will enable.

The Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory (SUPL) will have a main research hall that is 33 metres long, 10 metres wide and 12.3 metres high, and a side access wing configured in an L shape – to house the multi-disciplinary work of scientists from five research partners, including the University of Melbourne.

With all excavation and rock removal undertaken at a depth of approximately one kilometre underground, the physics lab can be now built within the caverns.

Funding for the lab was announced in 2019 with Commonwealth and Victorian governments both allocating $5 million each for the facility. The Australian Research Council awarded a $35 million Centre of Excellence for Dark Matter Particle Physics, with headquarters at the University of Melbourne.

The Centre’s activities will establish the Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory as the Southern Hemisphere’s epicentre for dark matter experiments.

While the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has recently prevented visits underground, the early works package of the project has been completed, ensuring the site is now ready for the lab to be constructed.

The General Manager of the mines stated that the excavations for the laboratory are now completed, with the mining teams creating two laboratory chambers, 1025m underground.

The main laboratory chamber excavation was a technical piece of work, undertaken in stages, as it is significantly larger than our normal operations and requires a higher level of engineering to ensure the longevity of the facility.

It’s an exciting period in the development of the laboratory as it moves into the construction phase and the eventual realisation of a world-class scientific facility.

Explosives and heavy machinery were used to excavate the two caverns, clearing approximately 4700 cubic metres before rock bolts and supports were installed before spraying shotcrete to reinforce the cavern.

The materials used to secure the cavern and cover the rock walls were all sourced from special suppliers to ensure the environment is suitable to host the types of experiments, which will be located within the laboratory.

The next step will be to award a contract to build the underground lab, with the tender process expected later this year and the Stage 1B works to be undertaken in 2021.

It is expected that in about one year from now, the scientists will be able to fit out a high-tech laboratory. As cosmic rays cannot reach one kilometre underground, the team is in an ideal location to carry out experiments.

According to another article, it was noted that the search for dark matter is at the cutting-edge of science, involving the intersection of particle, nuclear, and quantum physics. The underground laboratory will attract world-leading scientists to Australia to conduct important research.

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