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Why do we exist? UTA team working on $1.4 billion particle experiment for answers

According to modern physics, all matter and antimatter were created in equal parts at the beginning of time and should have obliterated each other and the universe before it could get off the ground.

And yet, here we are.

“Clearly, we live in a universe that’s made of matter,” said Jonathan Asaadi, an assistant physics professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

It’s one of the grand mysteries of the origins of the universe that Asaadi hopes will be answered by a $1.4 billion high-energy particle collision experiment in which UTA is playing a key developmental role.

The Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, or DUNE, broke ground in South Dakota on Friday, and nearly 1,000 scientists, professors, engineers, students and other collaborators from more than 30 countries will be building and operating it.

The focus is on subatomic particles known as neutrinos, which bombard us constantly from the sun and throughout the universe but pass through our bodies and other matter harmlessly — which makes them difficult to study. Physicists call them “ghost particles.”

DUNE’s approach will be to orchestrate the collisions of neutrinos and anti-neutrinos fired at the speed of light through 800 miles of the earth’s crust from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago to the future Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota.

The neutrino beams will strike through building-size chambers, each filled with 10,000 tons of liquid argon, collide with the argon atoms and, scientists hope, produce revealing “interactions.”

The facility will be built over the next 10 years, although it will allow for scientific experimenting at various stages starting in the next few years.

UTA factors heavily in the South Dakota site, where a four-story-high, 70,000-ton detector will be built under ground to catch the neutrinos. Physics professor Jaehoon Yu, Asaadi and about a dozen graduate and undergraduate physics students are developing the technologies and the giant instruments that will comprise the capturing and studying end of the project.

Yu was excited as he arrived at the groundbreaking site Thursday night.

“We’re exploring the most fundamental nature of the universe,” he said by phone. “We’re trying to understand the fundamental nature of matter and antimatter asymmetry.”

It also could provide answers about dark matter, which is mass throughout the universe that doesn’t emit or reflect light and comprises far more of the universe than visible matter.

“We have a puzzle in physics,” Asaadi said. “We have evidence of dark matter. The problem is we’ve yet to detect dark matter.”

The UTA group is focused on developing and building not only the argon chambers but a metal cage around the chambers to produce an electric field that will help scientists see the neutrino interactions.

UTA’s DUNE projects are funded with part of a $4 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, most of which is funding the UTA physics department’s research at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva. The collider is the largest in the world, sending beams of protons on collision courses in a 16.8-mile underground tunnel ringed with high-powered magnets.

The last high-energy particle collider in the U.S. was the Tevatron, operated by the Fermi accelerator laboratory, also known as Fermilab. Tevatron and its four-mile tunnel smashed protons and anti-protons from 1983 until 2011, when it was shuttered because of budget cuts and the completion of the Hadron Collider.

Both the Tevatron and the Hadron would have paled next to the superconducting super collider and its 54-mile tunnel that was planned for construction near Waxahachie in the early 1990s. But the estimated cost of that project swelled from $4.4 billion to more than $10 billion at a time of a massive national budget deficit, which, peppered with political infighting, killed the project in 1993 after $2 billion already had been spent on it.

Saddling it with the label, “Jurassic Pork,” after the dinosaur movie that premiered the same year, didn’t help the project.

The DUNE experiment is fundamentally different, using neutrinos, which are much smaller than protons and don’t need a tunnel; they pass easily through rock and soil.

The project received praise from around the world as part of the groundbreaking, including from U.S. Energy SecretaryRick Perry.

“The start of construction on this world-leading science experiment is cause for celebration,” Perry said in a statement. “Not just because of its positive impacts on the economy and on America’s strong relationships with our international partners, but also because of the fantastic discoveries that await us beyond the next horizon.”

Robert Cadwallader: 817-390-7186, @Kaddmann_ST

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