Treasure hunting. Researchers hope to convert a South Dakota mine into an underground laboratory.

Proposed Lab a Scientific Gold Mine

David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

Scientists are asking the National Science Foundation (NSF) to pour $281 million into a hole in the ground. A new research coalition submitted a proposal on 8 June to NSF to transform one of the world's deepest gold mines into a world-class underground laboratory for physics, geology, and extreme biology.

United States researchers--especially astrophysicists--have long coveted an underground facility deep enough to shelter sensitive instruments from unwanted cosmic radiation. But advocates failed to win funding for such a facility in the 1980s, prompting many scientists to export their studies to better subsurface labs in Japan, Italy, and elsewhere. Hopes rose anew last September, however, when Homestake Mining Co. announced that it would close its 125-year-old namesake, dug 2500-meters deep into the Black Hills near Mount Rushmore.

Energized by the chance to snag for science the Homestake's 1000 kilometers of tunnels, electrical wiring, and extensive ventilation system, advocates led by physicist Wick Haxton of the University of Washington, Seattle, have submitted a formal proposal. It seeks $281 million over 5 years, beginning in 2002, to carve detector halls, upgrade cables, build clean rooms, and begin small research projects. Major studies, however, would be funded separately, probably by NSF and the Department of Energy.

Researchers are already proposing ideas. Biologists, for instance, are interested in bacteria and other "extremophiles" that have adapted to the mine's harsh conditions. Astrophysicists say that they could install a $20 million detector designed to capture the burst of neutrinos created by a supernova. But it could take $500 million and a decade or more to build one of the biggest experiments envisioned for Homestake--the Ultra Underground Nucleon Decay and Neutrino Observatory, a bigger version of Japan's Super-Kamiokande proton-decay detector.

The proposal has powerful friends, including Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) and South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow, a Republican said to be close to President George W. Bush. They see the lab as an economic and educational mother lode, envisioning an underground IMAX movie theater and other tourist attractions. Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD), a member of the Senate Appropriations panel that oversees NSF's budget, has already asked for $10 million next year to keep the mine open while the science bureaucracy's wheels turn.

Posted in Physics