One of the biggest science projects in human history is ready to begin. Scientists from around the world announced today that they have completed the final design specs for what will become the largest particle accelerator ever built, the International Linear Collider, a planned 19.3-mile-long (31 km) machine that will be used to reveal the properties of dark matter and other fundamental particles that make up the universe. "The technology is there, the R&D milestones have been achieved, the physics case is clear, and we could start construction tomorrow," said Barry Barish, a US physicist and the leader of the accelerator's global design effort, in a statement.
The goal of the machine is to understand just what the universe is made of and how it all fits together. Scientists theorize that most of the universe (95 percent or more) is made up of dark matter, but no such particles have actually ever been observed. The new International Linear Collider (ILC) should be able to create these particles and more by smashing together beams of electrons and their opposite particles known as positrons.
The mountains of Japan are the leading location
But there are still two major obstacles standing in the way of the construction of the ILC at this point, namely, finding a host country for the project and funding it. Japan is the leading likely candidate for where the new collider may be built, with two potential sites located in the mountains, where construction is more challenging. And at an estimated cost of $7.8 billion US dollars, almost twice the amount it cost to build the world's current largest accelerator — the approximately 17-mile-long (27 km) Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — it may prove tough to raise all the necessary funds for the new project, even if they are divided as planned among the various countries and organizations whose scientists will be using it. "There is no funding yet on the table for construction," said Brian Foster, a physicist who serves as director of the European Linear Collider collaboration.
Still, all of the scientists involved in the new ILC project, over 1,000 at last count, broadly agree that the instrument is necessary to further advance the study of particle physics and understand exactly how the universe works. That's because while the older accelerator, the LHC, has already made some incredible discoveries and will still be operational for many years to come, its design and equipment don't allow for it to smash together the types of particles that scientists are aiming to collide with the new ILC. For one thing, the LHC is circular and the proposed ILC would be a straight line, allowing for substantially different kinds of experiments. "A linear collider has much more flexibility and is more upgradeable," Fowler told The Verge. The ILC would also be able to study in greater detail the Higgs boson, a particle discovered by the LHC in 2012 which had evaded detection for nearly 50 years.
Updated to add comments from Brian Foster of the European Linear Collider collaboration.