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Big bang machine faces new delay

A worker makes preparations for closing up one of the sectors in the
Large Hadron Collider's underground tunnel.

The scheduled restart of the world's biggest particle accelerator has been delayed another few weeks, until mid-November, due to vacuum leaks in two sectors of the Large Hadron Collider's underground tunnel.

Word of the fresh delay came on Monday via the CERN Bulletin, which is published by Europe's particle-physics center. And if the past year is any guide, this may not be the last postponement.

CERN has been working on repairs to the 17-mile-round collider ring on the French-Swiss border for the past 10 months. Amid international fanfare, scientists started sending beams of protons through the $10 billion machine last September. However, less than two weeks afterward, the LHC had to be shut down for an estimated $29 million in repairs - due to a wiring problem that caused a helium leak and did significant damage to the machine's underground magnet assemblies.

CERN officials initially scheduled the machine's restart for the spring of this year, then for September, and then for October. On Monday, the Bulletin said that the repairs and testing were "proceeding well," but that vacuum leaks were detected last week in two tunnel sectors that had already been sealed off and chilled down for operation.

Repairing the leaks will require warming up those sectors of the tunnel back to room temperature, then cooling them down again. "It is now foreseen that the LHC will be closed and ready for beam injection by mid-November," the Bulletin said.

The cold temperatures and hard vacuum are required for proper operation of the magnet system used to accelerate the LHC's proton beams to near the speed of light. Eventually, the LHC's proton beams will be smashed together in experiments aimed at unraveling the mysteries surrounding dark matter, the origins of the universe and perhaps the Higgs boson, a not-yet-detected particle that theorists believe plays a role in imparting mass to subatomic particles.

Some have voiced fears that the LHC could create globe-gobbling black holes or other catastrophic phenomena, but the best experts in the field say there's essentially no chance of that happening. A lawsuit seeking suspension of operations at the LHC on safety grounds was thrown out by a federal judge last year. That case is still on appeal, however, at the 9th Circuit Court in San Francisco.

For much, much more about the LHC, check out our special report.

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