Road trip: Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

Posted by Liz Kruesi
on Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, invited press and amateur astronomers to visit on November 17 and view a camera it’s building for a dark-energy study. Senior Editor Rich Talcott and I jumped at the chance to see the lab. Fermilab is about 2.5 hours south of Astronomy magazine’s headquarters, and we arrived with plenty of time to spare before the dark-energy event got under way.

Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator follows the path of the raised berm, outside of the ring of water. The tunnel is buried 25 feet under the berm. Liz Kruesi photo
After the information session, the 20 or so visitors loaded into a bus to see where scientists are building the Dark Energy Camera. (Rich will share more about the Dark Energy Survey and its camera in an upcoming blog.) Once we arrived, we got to go into the clean room where they’re testing the CCD chips — everyone loves booties and hairnets!

Astronomy Senior Editor Rich Talcott sports the garb necessary to visit the clean environment in which testing of CCD chips for the Dark Energy Camera takes place. Liz Kruesi photo
After receiving the inside-scoop tour of the Dark Energy Camera, we headed back to Fermilab headquarters — Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall, a 16-story building rising above the countryside. The lab’s public information officer, Tona Kunz, gave Rich and I a “tour” of the grounds, meaning we took the elevator to the 15th floor, which provides quite a view of the property. (Fermilab spans about 10 square miles of former farmland west of Chicago.) While looking out the windows, we wished the drizzly weather would have lifted so we could see over the entire grounds.

Tona pointed out the Tevatron, which is Fermilab’s huge particle accelerator. It consists of two beams — one composed of protons, and one of antiprotons. A series of magnets ramp up their velocities and thus energies, and the beams collide at energies of roughly 2 trillion electron volts (TeV). That’s more energetic than the energies the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detects (which are billions of electron volts).

A lot of other science is going on at Fermilab, too. For example, it’s spitting out neutrinos that a detector deep within the Soudan mine in northern Minnesota detects. Neutrinos — particles with no charge and very little mass — can change “flavors.” This project (called MINOS, or Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search) looks for this change.

A scale model of the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search sits in the lobby of Fermilab outside of Chicago. The display presents data in color and sound. Liz Kruesi photo
The some 2,000 scientists at Fermilab are also involved in a bunch of other astrophysics and cosmology projects — the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS), to name a couple. The lobby of Fermilab headquarters even displays a model of CDMS. It’s a science-meets-art exhibit. The brother of a Fermilab physicist built a scale model that presents CDMS’ data in color and sound according to the detected particles’ properties.

The scale model, Fermilab’s onsite sculptures, images of particle-tracks — they all prove that science is beautiful, both on Earth and in the nebulous shapes of space.

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.
Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.


Receive news, sky-event information, observing tips, and more from Astronomy's weekly email newsletter. View our Privacy Policy.

Find us on Facebook