Underground lab could help address modern science queries

If approved and funded construction could begin by 2014

A Washington audience at the Internet2 spring membership meeting Wednesday was linked by a high-speed, high-definition video to an underground physics lab 1,500 miles away and nearly 5,000 feet underground.

The videoconference introduced about 700 Internet2 attendees to the former Homestake Gold Mine near Lead, S.D., which is being considered by the National Science Foundation as a national Deep Underground Science and Engineering Lab, where physicists, biologists and geologists could research fundamental questions about matter, energy, life and the Earth. It also demonstrated the ability of high-performance research and education networks to link facilities around the world and deliver large amounts of scientific data.

If approved by NSF and funded by Congress, large-scale experiments at Homestake DUSEL would generate huge volumes of data that would be distributed to researchers around the world, said Claude Garelik, chief networking and security officer for the South Dakota Board of Regents, which has led development of the underground lab in the deepest mine in the United States. The regents oversee the state’s six public universities.

“The educational community is out in front with this kind of thing,” Garelik said of the live videoconference link. “High definition is new technology to the industry, but we have been doing videoconferencing for a long time.”

Internet2, established in 1996 to pick up where the NSFnet Internet backbone left off, is a testbed research and education network on which users can try new technologies and applications that might not be feasible on commercial networks. Internet2 also provides bigger pipes to accommodate the needs of power users in the research community. A consortium of more than 200 universities, 70 corporations and 45 affiliate members, including government agencies, operate the network, which provides a 20-gigabit/sec national backbone that is expected to go to 30-gigabits next year.

That backbone, linked with regional networks, provided the link with the old Homestake Mine. The mine, which ceased production in 2002, is the deepest in the United States with 370 miles of tunnels up to 8,000 feet deep. It is a stable, relatively dry hard-rock mine without the volatile gases that can plague coal mines, and the state began pursuing its development as a deep-science venue when the owners announced in 2000 their intentions of closing it down.

Planning and initial development has been funded by state and private money and it now is known as the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake. It was selected in 2007 by NSF as the primary candidate for a national deep underground lab.

DUSEL would fill the need for an interdisciplinary deep science lab to research some of the most basic questions of modern science, including the nature of the dark matter and dark energy that make up more than 95 percent of everything visible in the universe. In addition, the miles of rock shielding would allow the examination of neutrino particles that pervade the cosmos but almost never interact with matter. The deep shafts also would allow geology experiments, research into extreme biology and practical research into technologies such as carbon dioxide sequestration.

The NSF is evaluating design and requirements for large-scale DUSEL facilities, and if approved and funded construction at Homestake could begin by 2014, Kevin Lesko, who is leading the University of California at Berkeley team designing the facility, said from a tunnel 4,850 feet down. The underground campus would contain clean rooms, office space and laboratory facilities, as well as two 100,000-gallon detector tanks that would collect neutrinos generated at the Fermi National Lab outside of Chicago and beamed through the Earth at Homestake. Currently, there are some 20 smaller experiments operating on six levels, down to about 5,000 feet.

Network engineers have installed fiber optic cable in the old mine to support existing research as well as basic infrastructure such as power and ventilation. Although the Homestake is relatively dry and stable as mines go, the underground environment still is harsh for networking. Water, dust, humidity and temperature changes require that cable be protected and that switches and routers be installed in weather-proof boxes.

The fiber supporting the video link extends to the main science and technology office at the surface of the mine, where there is a point of presence connecting it with South Dakota’s Research, Education and Economic Development network, known as REED. REED, which supports multiple 10 gigabit/sec waves and links the state’s six public universities, connects with the Great Plains regional research and education network at Kansas City, which peers with the Internet2 backbone. Internet2 links with the Mid Atlantic regional network, which had a 1-gig link to the conference site in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Va.

The video conference used high-definition equipment donated by Polycom. “It wasn’t especially difficult, except for locating the equipment and getting it set up in the mine,” said Garelik.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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