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Locals speak live with underground physicists at Sanford lab

Bill Harlan, the communications director of Sanford underground research facility, speaks at a Rotary Club held at the Ramada Inn in Mitchell. At the event, the public was able to talk live with physicists who work a mile underground in the Sanford Lab in the former Homestake gold mine in Lead. (Jordan Steffen/Republic)

Through a live video feed, Mitchell residents spoke with physicists working across the state in a lab nearly a mile underground Thursday.

The event, held at the Ramada Hotel Convention Center in Mitchell, was sponsored by the Mitchell Rotary Club and brought in a diverse crowd that was able to ask physicists working at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead about current, world-class experiments.

"The lab is one of the best things to happen to South Dakota," said Sandy Krage, of Mitchell, who attended the event at the Ramada. "This was better than I ever anticipated. I didn't know they've gotten that much done yet."

South Dakota Sen. Mike Vehle, along with a crowd of more than 100, was granted access to the lab through a two-way video and microphone feed. In 2005, Vehle voted to spend $19.87 million on the underground lab.

The lab is in the old Homestake gold mine in Lead and is located below the earth's surface to avoid cosmic radiation that could interfere with experiments.

"I'm ecstatic," said Bill Harlan, the communications director of the underground research facility. "We had the most scientifically oriented questions so far. It was a very scientifically literate crowd."

The lab is involved in a worldwide race to detect dark matter, the most prevalent and predominant form of matter that composes 23 percent of the universe, but has never been directly detected.

The Majorana Demonstrator is being used to detect dark matter, which scientists believe is a weakly interacting massive particle, or WIMP.

The lab is also involved in a neutrino experiment in an attempt to detect a low-mass particle.

The presentation was part of the Deep Science series and is the last live video presentation planned for the summer. Harlan said he hopes to return to Mitchell in another video conference for a presentation after cameras are installed in the same room as the Majorana Detector.

Vehle, also the Rotary Club member who organized the event, used the opportunity to ask about the practical application of sensing dark matter.

Large Underground Xenon Physicist Richard Ott said the experiment will go through two runs, a 60-day and a 300-day run. Even if it does not detect dark matter, the scientists will release a statement telling why they were unable to sense it. Either way, physicists will learn more about dark matter.

"There is no short-term, known practical use for dark matter," Ott said. "It's a long-term investment. They said electricity would never have a practical use, back in the day. There are technologies made off of science experiments."

Lab Physicist Mark Hanhardt gave the audience a short tour of the lab and told about life underground, where the physicists have all the amenities of life above ground, including wireless Internet and an espresso machine.

While Harlan now gives presentations of the lab from above the surface, he used to be a miner in the Homestake gold mine. The ride down the shaft into the mine now takes 11 minutes, but took only three minutes when he was an employee.

"It was rock and roll," Harlan said.

The long-term plan for the presentation is to move it into classrooms.

"We want to connect real research scientists with kids to inspire them to look more closely at careers in physics and engineering," Harlan said. "That's what's so nice about this, it uses science and engineering to a high degree."

Live video conferences with the white hard-hat wearing underground physicists have been held in Huron, Aberdeen, Sioux Falls and Yankton, with more than 100 audience members in attendance at several sessions.

Vehle, who said he would cast the same vote again in favor of the underground research facility, was thrilled with the turnout.

"The fact there were the best scientific questions asked yet, that says a lot for the community of Mitchell," Vehle said.

The lab has received $40.2 million in state funding, and has attracted $261.5 million in outside funding to the state.

"We're just gearing up," Harlan said. "The $40 million has already been returned to South Dakota."