CORTEZ, Colo.— In a sand-colored metal building in remote southwest Colorado, the quest to unravel one of the most perplexing questions about the nature of the universe looks like this: a bedroom-sized tangle of pipes, gauges, wires and cylinders along with two computers, a stepladder, a big fan and several crates of canary yellow tanks.
This is a no-frills, low-thrill but very important part of a potentially universe-shaking project called Darkside-50.
U.S. Department of Energy and Princeton University scientists are harvesting argon gas here in the middle of a Kinder Morgan compressor plant linked to wells that dot this area. They hope it is going to be the medium that might finally “show” particle physicists the mysterious dark matter that makes up most of our universe.
If that sounds like a complicated stretch from this land of sunflower and bean fields to the far reaches of the firmament, well, it is.
“They came out here a couple of years ago and explained it to us in a meeting, but ...,” Kinder Morgan plant operations manager Stan Mannis said before finishing the statement by passing a hand over the top of his head to show where most of that information went.
So here’s the basic lowdown about dark matter: Around 95 percent of the universe can’t be seen. It doesn’t emit or absorb light or electromagnetic radiation like the stars, gas and dust that are visible. But this unseen matter is hypothesized to be there because otherwise the universe doesn’t add up. There is a discrepancy between the mass of visible objects and their gravitational force. In the simplest of terms, we could go spinning off our yoga mats and flagstone patios and into space if there weren’t more matter than can be seen.
The theory that leads to the need for argon — a gas so common it normally isn’t worth mining — is that the dark matter isn’t made of the usual electrons, protons, neutrons or neutrinos that compose the rest of matter. Rather, it is hypothesized to be made up of WIMPs — weakly interacting massive particles — which might show themselves in pure argon.
So physicists from around the world have been drawn to middle-of-nowhere Doe Canyon by a stash of a gas that is buried so deep it has not been contaminated by radiation like most argon, a crucial factor for the Darkside-50 experiment.
This pure argon, which has a unique form of transparency to light, is “a magic substance,” in the words of particle physicist Stephen Portis, with the Energy Department’s Fermilab near Chicago. Sparks should fly when it meets up with dark matter in a lab under an Italian mountain.
Physicists working on the project experienced another bit of magic in the Doe Canyon argon when Kinder Morgan was happy to let scientists “slipstream” the argon from the carbon dioxide they mine here and pipe to oil fields in west Texas.
The argon is being separated from the carbon dioxide to the tiny tune of half a kilogram a day at the Kinder Morgan facility, compressed in tanks and shipped to Fermilab. There it is being distilled in the same process as corn liquor — to 99.999 percent purity — and turned into a liquid.
Sometime next spring, it will be placed in a stainless-steel cylinder a mile under a mountain in the Gran Stasso laboratory near Rome.
Over the next three years, physicists think they may be able to observe pulses of light when WIMPs collide in that argon tank.
“It will tell us something very, very important about the universe,” explained Princeton particle physicist Henning Back.
Back has made several trips to the Cortez area in the past two years to check on the gas that is the basis for the experiment. He coincidentally was following in the footsteps of Marie Curie, who came to this part of the country seeking radium for her medical experiments more than a century ago.
The modern pilgrimages of high-powered scientists to this area have raised a few eyebrows and spawned at least one conspiracy theory.
There’s that sinister sounding name — Darkside-50 — which in truth innocently relates to dark matter.
A resident of the closest burg of Cahone went to a public informational meeting about Darkside to ask if the government had secret motives and whether the gas was being sold to the Chinese. “None” and “no” are the scientists’ responses to those concerns.
The argon gas really is going into an experiment that is part of an international race to be the first to “see” dark matter. The starting line for that race was set out 80 years ago when a scientist named Jan Oort postulated that there was missing mass in the universe.
Showing the world dark matter would be akin to the half-century of work it took to prove that neutrinos existed and had mass, Back said.
If the argon experiment works — even if it’s not first and is bested by experiments using xenon — Back said it will have implications beyond defining the universe. It may be useful in other fields, including medicine.
If Darkside-50 doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean argon mining in southwest Colorado will end or the argon-detector tank will be deemed a failure.
“If it doesn’t work,” Back said, “we will build a bigger one. We are already planning for the next big one.”
Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com