UVA scientists building detectors for muon experiment

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Physicists from the University of Virginia are participating in an experiment with the U.S. Department of Energy's Fermilab near Chicago.

They are building major components for the $271 million particle physics project, called the Muon-to-electron Conversion Experiment or Mu2e, which is one of the largest and most complex physics experiments ever conducted in the United States.

According to a release, the goal of particle physics is to bring to light the intimate behaviors of the tiny particles that make up the universe, the atoms, molecules, elements and compounds that are in stars, planets, inorganic matter and life.

“There are holes in our understanding of some of the interactions of the fundamental materials that gave rise to our universe,” said Craig Dukes, a professor of physics with UVA's High Energy Physics Group, which is leading the overall design and construction of a particle detector for the experiments. “We are working to fill gaps in theory by conducting direct experimentation at a major lab.”

Dukes is referring to the Standard Model of Physics, which is an overarching theory that attempts to explain the “fundamental forces” that shape the universe.

The experiment is being designed to create particle interactions, which will let physicists directly observe and analyze the conversion of one type of elementary particle, called a muon, into a lower-mass electron.

According to theory and other related studies, muons convert to electrons at a very small rate, and that predicted rate is almost too small to observe experimentally.

The release says, if Mu2e sees a signal, then physics beyond the Standard Model will have been discovered.

Dukes says this is important because to interpret the universe and fill in the gaps in the Standard Model, physicists need an understanding of some of the most minute details. This information could help solve some of the mysteries of the universe such as dark matter and dark energy.

Mu2e aims to do similar work to the Large Hadron Collider in Europe when it confirmed the existence of the Higgs particle in 2012.

This new experiment is designed to prove or disprove that muons convert to electrons and provide clues of information that is still missing from the Standard Model.

The release says the experiment will last for several years, beginning in 2023, and Fermilab will be using a particle accelerator to create about 100 million billion muons per year to study the interactions.

Based on information from past experiments, physicists say it will take at least that number to find the conversion to electrons if such a conversion occurs.

UVA is working to make sure there is no outside interference, or background data, from the actual universe that could corrupt the information collected by the experiment.

The physicists are building particle detectors to “catch” naturally occurring muons that come in from space, count them and deduct them from the man-made muons that will be inside the accelerator.

This part of the project is called the Cosmic Ray Veto, and it has been in planning at UVA for a decade.

Physics professor Craig Group, who is leading the fabrication team building the detectors, says they need to make certain that naturally occurring muons are not included within the experimental data during the entire time the project is running.

Professors, staff and students at UVA have been building detectors for the past 15 months, and some of these components, each of which weighs about 2,000 pounds, have already been shipped to Fermilab.

More are already being built and will be shipped during the next two years until there are 83 of them in total.

The technicians at Fermilab will eventually install the detectors that will completely surround the particle accelerator and protect its 300-square-meter surface from any outside signals.

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