LHC shut down until early spring

World's largest particle collider, forced to close last week due to a helium leak, won't be repaired in time for a mandatory winter maintenance period, pushing the restart date back to next year.

Professor Peter Higgs will have to wait at least a few additional seasons to find out whether his long-held theory on how matter has mass is right.

That's because officials announced Tuesday that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which could confirm the existence of a theoretical particle name after Higgs, will remain shut down until at least early spring.

Images: Where particles, physics theories collide
Click image for gallery on the Large Hadron Collider. Maximilien Brice for CERN

The LHC, the world's largest particle collider, is located in a nearly 17-mile-long circular tunnel along the French-Swiss border about 330 feet underground. Built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (or CERN), it promises to push forward theories of particle physics, such as the Higgs Boson, and the fundamental building blocks of all things.

The collider was officially launched on September 10 when the first particle beam was successfully sent around the full circuit. However, it hit a major glitch last week when a mechanical failure triggered a helium leak and forced a shutdown for what was initially reported to be at least two months.

Now it looks like the investigation and repairs won't be finished in time to restart the LHC before CERN's obligatory winter maintenance period, pushing the restart date back to early spring 2009, officials said.

CERN Director General Robert Aymar said in a press release that the delay was "undoubtedly a psychological blow," but added that the success with the first beam operation was testimony to the years of preparation and the skills of teams involved. "I have no doubt that we will overcome this setback with the same degree or rigor and application."

It appears the helium link was caused by a faulty electrical connection between two of the accelerator's magnets. But the magnets involved can't even be opened up for investigation until the sector is brought to room temperature, which will take three or four weeks, CERN said.

Peter Limon, who was responsible for commissioning the Tevatron superconducting accelerator in the U.S., offered perspective by adding that such problems are to be expected given the size and complexity of the LHC.

"Events occur from time to time that temporarily stop operations, for shorter or longer periods, especially during the early phases," he said in the press statement.

The LHC experiments involve accelerating two beams of subatomic particles--called hadrons--in opposite directions to more than 99.9 percent the speed of light. Smashing the beams together will create showers of new particles for physicists to study using special detectors. On a microscale, it will re-create conditions that existed during the first billionth of a second of the Big Bang.

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