Inauguration of the NOvA facility in Ash River, Minn.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Energy, the University of Minnesota and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory dedicate the NOvA Laboratory near the Ash River, Minn. Photo: Reidar Hahn

On April 27, more than 250 people gathered to inaugurate the NOvA facility near the Ash River in northern Minnesota. The facility consists of the huge far detector building, building fixtures and the impressive lifter that will position the NOvA blocks in their vertical position. When standing in the hall where the detector will be built, the building looks astonishingly large: it almost seems impossible that one day soon almost every square foot will be filled with detector.

The NOvA far detector, when complete, will be the largest plastic structure in the world. Sixteen-meter-long PVC tubes will form planes nearly 50 feet by 50 feet square. The planes will be stacked and glued 32 layers at a time and then pivoted to their final vertical position in the detector hall. Nearly 10,000 kilometers of wave-shifting fiber will be threaded through the 368,000 individual tubes, and finally the detector will be filled with 3,200,000 gallons of mineral oil loaded with scintillator.

More than 170 undergraduates are at work in the factory where individual modules are made before being shipped to the NOvA facility. They are manufacturing the detector planes and, in the process, learning all about running a large factory with the complex workflows and many quality assurance procedures required for successful production. Here at Fermilab, we have just begun upgrading our accelerator complex to produce the highest-power multi-GeV neutrino beam in the world starting in 2013.

The NOvA facility and our accelerator complex that creates the neutrino beam together constitute extraordinary means to carry out extraordinary science. The recent measurement by the Daya Bay reactor experiment in China, confirmed by the RENO reactor experiment in Korea, show us that the door is wide open for the next set of measurements in the neutrino sector. NOvA will be the first with the ability to tell us how the masses of the neutrinos are arranged.

The completion of the NOvA facility required exceptional efforts on multiple fronts. The collaboration generated an excellent detector design and, after testing it using a prototype detector on our Fermilab site, is ready to start building it at full scale. The University of Minnesota has done a remarkable job in managing the construction of the facility and running the Ash River laboratory. The facility’s design firm and the construction company have also done a great job, and we continue to receive strong support from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The DOE Fermi Site Office and the DOE Office of High Energy Physics have been extraordinarily helpful all the way along the process. And our legislators in congress have helped us overcome unusual turbulence along the road.

Building the extraordinary NOvA experiment has required extraordinary collaboration and determination. It has not been very long since the project’s funding was zeroed out by the FY 2008 omnibus funding bill and the NOvA team dispersed to other projects. Friday’s event shows that despite the nutty and unstable way in which we manage science in our country, we can still get big projects done.