How would you like the chance to see a mind-blowing science experiment being constructed right before your eyes?
If you head on over to this link, you can do just that. What you’re seeing is a live webcam feed from a construction site near the Ash River in Minnesota, where crews are working around the clock to build a gigantic plastic device — about 200 feet long, when it’s done — for an experiment that we call NOvA.
That’s a little word for a big project. NOvA is a collaboration between Fermilab and 33 other institutions around the world, and its construction spans two states. When it’s finished next year, it will be one of the most advanced neutrino experiments on the planet.
Neutrinos are impossibly small, naturally occurring particles. Trillions of them are passing through you right now, with no effect whatsoever. And since they’re so small, and they can move through anything (even the 500 miles of dirt and rock between here and Minnesota), studying them is incredibly difficult. We need to build something eye-poppingly big just to do it.
That’s where the huge plastic machine, called the NOvA far detector, comes in. Each block of this device is made from hard PVC, measures 51 feet by 51 feet by 7 feet, and weighs 417,000 pounds. Each block is built on an enormous 750,000-pound pivoting machine, which Fermilab developed just for this purpose.
When all 28 blocks are in place, the detector will be as long as the building I’m in now, Fermilab’s 16-story Wilson Hall, is tall. When it’s filled with the liquid that goes into each of the blocks, the far detector will weigh 14,000 tons. A Volkswagen Beetle weighs about one ton, so imagine 14,000 of those. It’s massive.
We’re also building a smaller near detector here at Fermilab, in an underground hall about a half-mile east of Kirk Road on the Fermilab site. When NOvA starts up this spring, we’re going to shoot a beam of neutrinos first through that near detector, and then through 500 miles of earth to get to the far detector.
And we’re going to do that over and over, sending trillions of neutrinos to Minnesota every two seconds, for six years.
What are we looking for? Well, to put it simply, we’re trying to figure out if one kind of neutrino changes into another kind on its way to Minnesota. Imagine if a friend of yours leaves for Minnesota in a sports car, doesn't stop along the way, and arrives in a pickup truck. And his hair has changed color. Neutrinos perform this trick all the time.
But what we’re really looking for is the answer to one of the biggest mysteries of the universe. According to everything we know, the Big Bang should have created an equal amount of matter and antimatter. Physicists so far can’t figure out where all the antimatter went. If we can nail down the properties of neutrinos and understand their surprising behavior, scientists believe that we may get one step closer to solving that riddle.
So it’s a big machine designed to solve an even bigger puzzle, and you can watch it come together one massive block at a time here. For more on NOvA, read this. For more crazy-cool stuff from Fermilab, keep reading this blog on Patch.
Andre Salles is the media and community relations specialist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. He can be reached by calling 630-840-6733, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.