The World's 10 Most Massive Science Experiments

Science projects don't always involve dorks in lab coats peering through microscopes. Science is often writ large, the terrain transformed by the quest for knowledge. From a giant, miles-long donut buried beneath Switzerland, to a set of huge radio telescopes that march along the horizon, here's the best of big science.  By John Brandon


    Massive Science

    You might already know about the Large Hadron Collider, the tremendous, 17-mile long underground physics experiment meant to find signs of the Big Bang. But did you know about the underground mine experiment in South Dakota that intends to find dark matter? Or that the Lawrence Livermore National Lab has built a massive, high-powered laser? Here are the largest science experiments in the world and what they're hoping to discover.

    1. Most powerful (and largest) laser beam

    The National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California is huge -- really huge. There are 192 lasers located in a building that’s bigger than three football fields. The lasers are 60 times more powerful than most laser beams -- at about 2 million joules of ultraviolet energy.  The goal of the project is also massive: to find new sources of power. The beams are shot into an area about the size of a nail head, in hopes that the beams will heat hydrogen to temperatures hotter than those lasers themselves -- and produce a reaction similar to that found in another incredibly high-temperature chamber: the sun.

    2. Largest single-optic telescope

    The Aricebo Radio telescope in Puerto Rico is the largest such scope in the world, measuring 1,001 feet in diameter and capable of scanning an area that’s about 73,000 square miles in size. The telescope is used to scan for space anomalies and keep astronomer’s honest: In 1964, it found that the planet Mercury actually rotates around the sun every 59 days, not every 88 days. Armchair astronomers can join the fun by participating in the Einstein@Home project, which uses 250,000 home computers to analyze astronomical data.
    NAIC - Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the NSF

    3. Massive telescope farm

    Featured in the movie "Contact," the aptly named Very Large Array is located in Socorro, New Mexico, and includes 27 antennas, each with a diameter of about 82 feet. The radio telescopes are looking for signs of the early universe -- one recent discovery found early traces of Milky Way gas clouds.  One technique astronomers use to find astronomical oddities: comparing the results from optical telescopes in space to these radio telescopes here on Earth -- to analyze, say, the brightness level of an exploding star.

    4. A mile-long X-ray machine

    The new X-ray machine at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California, called the Linac Coherent Light Source, measures about a mile long. The machien uses a high-powered laser to capture images of molecules and atoms in rapid motion. This helps the researchers figure out how photosynthesis works -- and to visualize what a deadly virus actually looks like.

    5. Deepest underwater telescope

    The Antares project is an underwater laboratory located in the Mediterranean Sea near Toulon, France. About 75 orbs are strung together on dozens of 1,100-foot cables and then lowered about 1.5 miles into the icy depths, forming one massive telescope. Researchers are looking for traces of neutrinos, which hold many secrets about the location and intensity of cosmic radiation and dark matter.
    L. Fabre/CEA

    6. 950-acre solar power station

    Not technically a science experiment, but one that has distinct scientific ramifications, the Sarnia power station in Ontario, Canada, produces 80 megawatts of power and consists of 1.3 million solar panels covering an area about 950-acres in size. The project provides power to more than 12,000 homes and hints at a future when massive land masses are converted into solar arrays for powering nearby cities.

    7. 17-mile particle collider

    Certainly the most well-known large scientific experiment, the Large Hadron Collider, winds around an area of Geneva, Switzerland, for about 17 miles. Protons race around the ring 11,000 times per second. There are a whopping 9,300 magnets that cause the swirling effect.  With it, scientists hope to figure out what happens when protons and other atomic particles collide and produce intense energy -- about 100,000 times hotter than the core of the sun. Still early in testing, the first collisions occurred this year, but the experiment is only running at about half its total operational power.

    8. Dark matter hunt, 8,000-feet underground

    Located about a mile and a half below the surface of the earth, the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory in Homestake, South Dakota, will help scientists find traces of dark matter, which are only possible to find underground without interference from cosmic rays. The underground lab also will be used to examine rock formations and detect neutrinos -- one of the smallest particles in the universe.
    Anna Davis / Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake

    9. LIGO: the 5-mile long gravity detector

    The Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO for short, consists of two “arms” that are about 2.5 miles long. One is located near Livingston, Louisiana, and another in Hanford, Washington. (They are separated by about 2,000 miles so the findings can be compared.)  The arms are actually vacuum pipes that measure about 4 feet in diameter and form an L shape. They are used to detect gravitational waves that hint at massive collisions in the deep universe.

    10. Svalbard Global Seed Bank

    While not a science experiment per se, this massive seed bank has scientific implications – especially if there is a catastrophic event that wipes out existing seed banks. And it is, truly, massive. Located on the island of Spitsbergen in Norway, the Svalbard seed bank is built about 400 feet into a mountain and can hold as many as 4.5 million seeds at full capacity. There are three separate chambers that cover an area of about 3,000 square feet.
    Svalbard Global Seed Bank
Image 1 of 10