Deep science

Joe Lykken

I clipped my harness to some webbing in the corner of the open work cage, and a few seconds later foreman George Vandine signaled the hoist operator to begin our descent of the Ross Shaft. Our headlamps barely penetrated the Stygian gloom, enough to see the brand new tubular steel frames and other modernizations that will provide high-speed access and utilities to the Ross Campus, almost a mile underground. The inspection tour halted more than 2,000 feet down, where the new steel gave way to an 80-year-old rusted skeleton, left over from the Homestake mine. Mike Headley, the executive director of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, summed up their progress: “The rehab is almost half done, and it’s going smoothly with two 12-hour shifts a day. We’ll be ready for LBNF construction in 2017.”

Earlier that day, Mike had led Tim Meyer and me on an impressive tour of the 4,850-foot level of the Sanford Underground Research Facility. Emerging from the Yates Shaft we found a tidy intersection of drifts (a drift is what miners call a tunnel that doesn’t connect to the surface) with overhead utilities and a cute little rail system. After two stages of cleanup (even my phone got a wipe) we were allowed into the lab area of the Davis Campus.

I might just as well have been back at Fermilab, instead of a mile underground. There was an espresso machine and wireless. We got a peek into the ultraclean room where the Majorana Demonstrator is being assembled, and then Rick Gaitskell greeted us in the Davis Cavern, the site of Ray Davis’ visionary (and Nobel-worthy) discovery of neutrino oscillations. Today this cavern is a cutting-edge lab housing LUX, the world-leading dark matter detection experiment, and is soon to be the home of LZ, the next-generation experiment that Fermilab is collaborating on.

From there it was a substantial hike in my rubber boots to the Ross Campus, where SDSTA engineer Josh Willhite showed us the site reserved for the LBNF caverns. Once the rehab of the Ross Shaft is complete, they can extract 1,500 tons of rock per day, whisked to the surface in skips that will go from bottom to top in three minutes flat. Josh waved his arm at a slight angle to the drift: “The caverns will go that way, pointing towards Fermilab.”

After our underground sojourn, Tim and I met Mike, Josh and DOE operations managers Kevin Lesko and Gil Gilchriese at the Deadwood Social Club. Raising a glass each of Pile O’Dirt, the local microbrew, we made a toast: “Here’s to LBNF construction in 2017.”

DOE Operations Manager Kevin Lesko, South Dakota Science and Technology Authority Executive Director Mike Headley, Fermilab Deputy Director Joe Lykken and Fermilab Chief Operating Officer Tim Meyer descend 4,850 feet underground through the Yates shaft at the Sanford Underground Research Facility. Photo: Matt Kapust, South Dakota Science and Technology Authority