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CERN plans LHC switch-on for May next year

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CERN's new particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, will start up in May 2008, the facility's director general announced on Friday last week.

Low energy runs on the LHC were supposed to begin this year, but the project has been beset by niggles, technical hitches and other delays. The catastrophic failure of a magnetic component called an inner triplet, during a pressure test in March was the rather large bale of straw that finally broke the schedule's back.

But rather than miss its original switch-on date, the management has decided to skip the low power runs altogether.

Project leader Lyn Evans explains: "We'll be starting up for physics in May 2008 as always foreseen, and will commission the machine to full energy in one go. There is no big red button when you're starting up an accelerator, but we aim to be seeing high energy collisions by the summer."

Instead of the low energy runs, the new schedule calls for each of the LHC's sectors to be successively cooled and powered over the winter. Earlier this year the first sector was taken down to its operational temperature of 1.9K. CERN says cooling the sector took longer than expected, but that the team should be able to use their experience here to cool the other sectors more quickly.

This should mean the machine is ready for the accelerators to be switched on in the spring. Tests on powering up the cooled segment have already begun, and the cooling of the next segment will start soon.

The LHC is massive: at 27km in circumference, it is the world's largest super conducting installation. It is also massively complex.

When the accelerators are switched on, the team will have a chance to get used to driving the machine with relatively low energy and intensity beams. Only once they have the hang of things will the energy and intensity be increased.

The CERN council also voted to increase funding for the facility from 2008-2011. CERN Director General Robert Aymar described the decision as an important vote of confidence for particle physics in Europe.

He said: "[This increase in funding] allows us to consolidate the laboratory’s infrastructure, prepare for future upgrades of the LHC and to re-launch a programme of R&D for the long-term future." ®

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