SNOLad Need I say More?

So yesterday started at 5h30. I rolled out of bed, groggy and rather reluctant I will confess. I generally don’t like mornings, and I like them less when the I am up before the Sun, let alone well before the Sun.

I dragged myself through the shower, managed a cup of tea and waited for my rid. When I steppe into the crisp, Sudbury morning, winter air it finished the job and I was wide awake. No stopping me now.

A half hour later I found myself with my Science Communication class in SNOLab’s offices. This was going to be the field trip of a lifetime! We got some last instructions, filled out some forms in case of disaster, more or less they asked where does Vale ship the body. A couple people got confused and put Laurentian University’s address instead of home, but they shrugged off the misunderstanding as a worthy donation to science.


Everything you could ever need to go under ground. I swear those boots were full of lead though.



Lamp. Check. Number tag. Check. Mostly half naked under overalls. Check.



All smiles as we sign our life away and get ready to head over to the cage.


After that we were given some gear, got dressed and made our way over to the cage to start our 2 km descent into the Earth. We only descent at half speed (some 1000 ft/min) which rose a few grumbles from the miners who had to take five minutes instead of three to get down to work. Packed 44 shoulder to shoulder in a sardine tin, if it weren’t for the constant popping of my ears, I might have like 3 minutes as well. At least you were packed in so tight if you fainted you just stayed standing … or so I assume.

One underground, we started our 1 km treck to SNOLab. Mud, puddles, mine carts and lights. Not just on our helmets, but on the ceiling of the drift as well. This is one of the way Vale supports SNOLab, with lighting all the way. Usually there are almost no lights and you work by lamp light.


It was much better light, but what can I say this looks so much cooler.

Once we got to SNOLab, we washed our boots, went inside then made our ways to the showers. There is no privacy for the sake of science. Buck naked and quick saunter to the showers to scrub down, before drying off and donning our clean cloths (we even got to borrow clean undies!).


Cleaning our boots before heading into the clean lab. If you don’t clean them properly you find a sticky note on your boots when you leave. I just want to point out, none of us got sticky notes!


So what’s the first thing I do after descending 2 km into the Earth, trudging 1.4 km in miner’s gear in an active, baring it all, and finally being granted access to the worlds deepest clean laboratory? Go I seek out my personal Mecca, SNO (the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory) that solved the missing neutrino problem in the solar model? Nope. First, I tick one of the those boxes off my bucket list: Make and drink a cup of tea 20 km bellow the surface of the Earth. Check!


Need I say anything?



Also there were cookies.


Okay, so making tea underground may not have actually been on my bucket list, but it was priority number one once we got into SNOLab. Seeing SNO on the other hand was on my bucket list. For those not in the know, and if you’re not a Sun obsessed nut like myself you may not be, but SNO found the missing neutrinos from the Sun. Which in the solar-physics world is pretty damn awesome and important because it help confirm our current standing model of the Sun.

We know the Sun runs on hydrogen fusion and one of the by-products of compressing hydrogen into helium under incredible pressure and heat is the creation of neutrinos, near massless particles that kind of just pass through everything. Given the size and characteristics of the Sun, we knew we should see X number of neutrinos in our detectors here on Earth. The problem was, we only saw half that number in the first detectors built. SNO found the missing half and added confirmation to our current solar model!

Our tour started with SNO, well SNO+ as the project is being refitted to conduct other experiments.


I am just about to look down into SNO+ and can’t wait to see this amazing project!




Boats for boating around in the heavy water when it was SNO. As SNO+ the heavy water has been replaced with liquid scintillator to detect low every solar neutrinos and be used as part of SNEWS.



Inside this outer shell of phototubes is a 12 m acrylic sphere housing the liquid scintillator. The cavity housing the expirement is 20 m and greatly confuses any miners because you never need a cavity that big when mining.



My classmate getting a close look at one of the phototubes. They are so sensitive that if you were as far as the Moon (380 00 km) and happened to only have a small pocket flashlight to Morse for help, this detector could pick it up from the Earth’s surface (not underground of course because visible light doesn’t get down there, nor cosmic rays – one of the big reasons these experiments are so far underground.)

From SNO+ we continued on through SNOLab seeing all kinds of amazing experiments and sights. Here are a few more highlights from the trip.


It may not look like much, COUPP will be looking for dark matter interactions.



Moving into its second phase (if I recall), COUPP has already eliminated several possible permutations of dark matter’s mass and speed. They are now looking for heavier dark matter. Only in particle physics do you get excited when you see nothing after running an experiment for 5 years.



This is the ramp they built for when Stephen Hawking came to visit.



It glows. And to be honest that’s all I retained on this experiment at this point. I was starting to hit excitement overload.



The crane is the biggest piece of equipment ever brought into SNOLab. It had to be brought down in pieces suspended under the cage then manoeuvred by two forklifts down the drift.



What’s a clean lab 2 km underground without a few stairs taking you further into Earth.



DEAP, another dark matter detection experiment. It is interesting because a number of the experiments in SNOLab are all competing against each other to look for dark matter. And when dark matter is thought to interact maybe once a year with matter, you had better hope it hits your experiment and not your neighbours.



Our guide, Samanthan Kuula, was just amazing. A store house of information and so engaging. As was Eric, one of the scientists on site who talked to us about COUPP.



And this was the coolest thing ever. You are looking at HALO, the Helium And Lead Observatory. Each of those detectors is encased in lead and contain helium three. It looks for neutrinos that might arrive at Earth just before the light of a supernova does. Neutrinos don’t travel fast than light, they just don’t interact with much of anything, but light does interact with a lot on its cosmic journey. So as light is waylaid by dust, cosmic gas and gravity, neutrinos pass through it all and get here minutes to days before the light. HALO is part of the SuperNova Early Warning System or SNEWS. Once HALO picks up the signs of supernova neutrinos, it calls on other neutrino detectors around the world (including SNO+) and they try to triangulate the origin of the neutrinos!



Getting ready to head back out to the drift and take the cage back to surface after an amazing trip!