In Lead, S.D., a steel cage drops almost a mile below ground into the Sanford Underground Laboratory. It's formerly the deepest underground gold mine in North America, and when it closed a decade ago, state officials hoped that an underground science laboratory along with on-site university classes could spur economic development, NPR reports.
That hope may soon be realized, alongside an even bigger goal: South Dakota is about to enter the global race to prove the existence of dark matter, which some scientists theorize makes up a good chunk of the universe.
The LUX Dark Matter Detector is being installed in the facilities at the former gold mine, which, after years of work, finally opened this summer.
The LUX is the biggest experiment of its type, and scientists around the world are watching.
If winning NASCAR means building a better race car, winning the race to prove the existence of dark matter means building a better detector. And in this race, better generally means bigger and deeper underground.
"This laboratory truly is exceptional," says Richard Gaitskell, lead researcher on the LUX project, "and it will ensure that we're able to do a dark matter experiment really like no other, that will be incredibly sensitive for dark matter and we look forward to being able to report results from this experiment in 2013 next year."
Underground labs are needed for experiments like this one, which are designed to detect particular kinds of subatomic particles.
Being underground helps block out some of the other particles streaming through space, such as cosmic rays.
Physicists say the United States has trailed in this sort of science — Japan, Italy and Canada already have underground labs of their own.
The LUX Dark Matter detector is a collaboration among 17 institutions, and it's one of about a dozen entrants in the global race to directly detect dark matter.
One of the other groups is the Xenon 100 Experiment, located deep underground in Italy's Gran Sasso Laboratory. Katsushi Arisaka, a physics professor at UCLA who works on that experiment, says that when it comes to hunting dark matter, size matters. The bigger the target, the more likely a dark matter particle will be found.
"It is quite exciting time for the LUX," Arisaka says. "We are already started to make even bigger detectors, 10 times bigger than the LUX. It is a real interesting race."
There's lots riding on this race — not only in the scientific community, but also in South Dakota. The state invested $40 million in building the underground lab that now houses LUX and other experiments, and it's banking on long-term federal funding to pay the $1 million a month it takes to keep the facility open.
But South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard considers the lab a safe bet. "Great rewards sometimes take risk," he says. "But the future is still wide open. We think it's important as a landlord to build the building, and I think we'll start attracting tenants."
Officials are hoping for a Nobel-type discovery in any of the experiments housed in the new lab that could help solidify funding. It's a hope that's not that far-fetched; after all, the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics went to Ray Davis, whose neutrino experiments were done in the gold mine.
Today, researchers nearly a mile underground in South Dakota are again trying to attain extraordinary results.