Champagne corks popped at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) this weekend after one of the facility’s four giant particle detectors tasted its first authentic data. Crammed into a stuffy control room on the afternoon of Friday 22 August, physicists tracked the debris produced by protons that had struck a block of concrete during a test of the €3 billion (£2.1 billion) collider’s beam-injection system.
Some 15 years in construction, the LHC is based at the European particle facility CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, and is due to fully switch on its proton beams on 10 September. But the LHC’s particle detectors have been recording hits from cosmic rays for several months — and Friday’s test now marks the first time particle tracks have been reconstructed from a man-made event generated by the collider. “It’s amazing to have seen the first LHC tracks,” Themis Bowcock of University of Liverpool, UK, who led the team, told Nature. “It’s quite overwhelming actually.”
The first useful physics data is expected to come in October, when the two counter-rotating beams of protons racing through the LHC’s 27-kilometre-long tunnels are made to collide, packing sufficient energy into a small enough space to produce fundamental particles from thin air. Full high-energy collisions at a combined energy of 14 trillion electron volts will begin next spring, exceeding the energies accessible to the current world record holder — the Tevatron at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois — by a factor of seven. The LHC’s high-energy collisions will allow physicists to search for new particles such as the fabled Higgs boson, which is thought to be responsible for conferring the property of mass on other particles.