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The Hunt Is on for Elusive Neutrino's Mass

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
       A scientific hunt to measure the elusive neutrino is about to get under way deep beneath the southeastern New Mexico desert.
    In an unused alcove at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Stanford physicist Giorgio Gratta and his colleagues have built a high-tech lab to try to measure the weight of what scientists call "the little neutral one," one of the most mysterious of the tiny subatomic particles that make up all matter in our universe.
    "The mass of the neutrino is something we don't know," said Roger Nelson, chief scientist at the Department of Energy-run WIPP.
    WIPP's primary job is nuclear waste disposal. But a team of scientists including Nelson has been pushing for the past six years to take advantage of its deep underground location to do basic physics research.
    On Earth's surface, radiation from space and natural emissions from many rock types make a cacophony that makes detecting the quiet neutrino impossible.
    The deep salt bed that is crucial to protecting WIPP's nuclear waste also protects the scientists' experiments from the subatomic noise above, Nelson said in a recent interview. Despite the radioactive waste stored nearby, WIPP offers "one of the lowest radioactive backgrounds" on Earth, Nelson said, making it ideal for the experiment.
    Gratta's neutrino hunt uses containers full of highly purified xenon, an element that on rare occasions breaks down, emitting neutrinos in the process. Measurements taken as that happens could provide one measure of the neutrino's weight, Nelson said.
    Scientists working on the project gathered Wednesday with Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., for a formal ribbon cutting at the laboratory. Domenici helped arrange the funding for the research effort.
    Nelson said the scientific team hopes to begin collecting neutrino data by January.