University seeks $300 million underground lab

A University site is included in national competition for a federally funded lab.

Mike Enright

More than a year after the National Science Foundation settled on either Colorado or South Dakota for a $300 million federally funded underground lab, the organization has made room for two more seats at the table – one of them belonging to the University.

On Jan. 9, the NSF accepted applications for potential lab sites in Minnesota and Washington.

The foundation reopened the competition following a complaint last June by the University of Washington that its proposal had been unfairly denied.

Despite the recent additions, Colorado State University physics professor Robert Wilson said he and his colleagues aren’t too concerned.

If anything, they feel more comfortable now, he said, having gone through the process once already.

The school’s proposed lab site is Henderson Mine, located near Empire, Colo.

“Interest in the Henderson proposal has just skyrocketed in the last year,” Wilson said.

He said overall he feels fairly confident about CSU’s chances of securing the NSF grant.

“I’m feeling very good about what we have submitted,” he said. “I’m planning to do the work we’ve proposed to do over the next three years.”

With the new lab, physicists could go deep underground, away from the sun, to conduct a host of experiments on the universe: how it works and what it’s made of.

Some of those kinds of experiments are already going on here in Minnesota, said Marvin Marshak, a University physics and astronomy professor leading Minnesota’s effort.

Roughly 90 miles north of Duluth, at the closed Soudan Iron Mine, the University has hosted an underground physics lab for about 25 years, Marshak said.

If given the grant, the University would be able to improve and expand on its current facilities, he said, unlike the other proposals, which are essentially starting from scratch.

“We think it’s a better idea to reuse what you already have,” he said, “especially in the current budget context, where the federal government has lots of other things competing for money.”

That aside, Marshak said the University’s proposal was eliminated when the NSF originally narrowed the field to Colorado and South Dakota doesn’t help its chances.

“So you have to view those two sites as the front-runners, if you’re being realistic,” he said. “If you’re being optimistic, as I always am, then of course we’re going to win.”

NSF spokesman Joshua Chamot said a decision on who will get the new lab should come in April or May, but nothing is final yet.

Funding for the lab is still pending congressional approval, he said, and construction is slated to begin in 2010.

Mapping out a hypergiant

Combining pictures from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the W.M. Keck Observatory in Kamuela, Hawaii, University researchers have created the first truly three-dimensional images of one of the brightest stars in space.

Located roughly 5,000 light-years away, the red supergiant known as VY Canis Majoris is also called a hypergiant star due to its extreme brightness.

“Let’s say if that star and the sun were at the same distance, it would be 500,000 times brighter than the sun, and it would extend to the orbit of Saturn,” said Roberta Humphreys, a University astronomy professor and lead researcher.

Simultaneously, by using these mapping techniques, the scientists also learned that hypergiant stars might lose mass in a manner more complicated than thought.

In the past, astronomers hypothesized that as a massive star grows old, it emits material rather uniformly from all over its surface, said University astronomy professor Terry Jones, a colleague of Humphreys’ on the project.

But with VY Canis Majoris, they observed matter ejected in eruptions at separate places on the star, going in different directions, Humphreys said.

“This meant the star was going burp this way and burp that way, and so on. And so the question is why,” she said. “We think the ejection mechanism then may be related to similar kind of activity on the sun.”

Similar to solar flares, the outbursts on VY Canis Majoris have formed arcs and loops of material.

“One thing this would suggest to us Ö is that stars getting near the end of their lives probably go through very active periods of high mass-loss, getting rid of as much stuff as they can,” she said. “And what this is telling us is that Ö the mechanism of that mass loss may be quite different than we speculated in the past.”