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Advancing Underground Science at South Dakota’s Sanford Lab

The Davis Campus of the Sanford Underground Research Facility is almost a mile deep in the former Homestake gold mine.

The Davis Campus of the Sanford Underground Research Facility is almost a mile deep in the former Homestake gold mine.

Almost a mile deep in the former Homestake gold mine in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Sanford Underground Research Facility officially opened its Davis Campus on May 30 by introducing more than 60 visitors to the sparkling new laboratories. Berkeley Lab played a prominent role in the Campus’s official opening, which held different significance for the many guests from federal and state government, universities and national laboratories, and local and national media.

For the state, including South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard, former Governor Mike Rounds, philanthropist T. Denny Sanford (for whom the Sanford Lab is named), and Ron Wheeler, Executive Director of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, the Lab’s operator, the dedication was confirmation that over $40 million of public investment and $50 million in Sanford’s private contributions, not to mention the gift of the retired Homestake mine itself by the Barrick Gold Corporation, would not come to an abrupt end because of the December 2010 decision by the National Science Foundation to stop funding the development of what was to have been the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL).

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, until then a sponsor of major experiments but a backseat partner in DUSEL planning, decided in July, 2011, to fund operations at the Sanford Lab and its existing experiments through Berkeley Lab, with Kevin Lesko of the Nuclear Science Division, who had led the DUSEL proposal, named principal investigator. NSF support is expected to continue for individual experiments. Meanwhile DOE will pursue major projects such as Fermilab’s Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment, proposed to begin with a large liquid argon detector at Homestake and a new accelerator beamline at Fermilab, 800 miles away.

Thunderstorms between Washington and Denver turned back Office of Science Director Bill Brinkman en route to South Dakota, but DOE was well represented by James Siegrist, Associate Director of Science for High Energy Physics, and by James Symons, Berkeley Lab’s Associate Director of General Sciences. Lesko, Dave Nygren and Gil Gilchriese of the Physics Division, and other current and former members of Berkeley Lab were on hand; Fermilab’s Deputy Director Young-Kee Kim was among the VIPs.

For all parties, the most significant aspect of the Davis Campus dedication was its potential for science. Equipped with hard hats and safety gear, the VIPs were introduced to the LUX search for dark matter, in the form of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), and the MAJORANA DEMONSTRATOR, the first stage of an experiment to determine whether neutrinos are their own antiparticles. Deep underground is the only place to do this kind of physics, which requires an absolute minimum of background interference.

Housed in a 72,000-gallon water tank, LUX stands in the very place where Ray Davis began his search for neutrinos from the sun in the 1960s. The experiment continued into the 90s and established the solar neutrino problem, the fact that only a third the predicted number could be detected, which introduced the modern era of neutrino physics and astrophysics. One of the VIPs on-hand to dedicate the Davis Campus was Davis’s widow, Anna, who was given a chunk of her husband’s experiment mounted as a trophy.

Back at the surface for a lunchtime buffet, the guests heard a series of brief talks kicked off by Lesko, who underlined the Sanford Lab’s future role in maintaining U.S. scientific leadership, “so we can keep our best and brightest here, and invite our friends from abroad to use the best available deep underground research facilities.”

Siegrist, with tongue in cheek, credited DOE’s “redundant safety measures” for his stand-in performance, “since they sent me on a different plane.” He then thanked South Dakota for its patience in waiting for the federal government to decide on the right course, noting the commitment of DOE’s Office of Science and Director Brinkman’s enthusiasm for the program of research.

The dedication ceremonies wrapped up with a review of the history of science in the Homestake mine from Governor Daugaard. He underlined the generosity and cooperation of all parties and, like Lesko, stressed the Sanford Lab’s importance as a place to keep the best and brightest at home. Daugaard thanked Berkeley Lab for its leadership, pointing out that Ernest and John Lawrence were born in South Dakota “but unfortunately had to leave to pursue their careers.” Said Daugaard, “We want our own young people to discover the fun of scientific discovery, right here at the Sanford Lab.”

Following is a slide show of photos from the Davis Campus dedication ceremony by Berkeley Lab photographer Roy Kaltschmidt.

More information

More about the Sanford Underground Research Facility is at and at

More about the LUX search for dark matter is at

More about the MAJORANA DEMONSTRATOR and the search for neutrinoless double-beta decay is at

More on the current status of the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment is at