Early this month, a new, deep underground laboratory officially opened in the former Homestake Gold Mine in Lead, S.D. The Sanford Underground Lab’s main aim: to discover the nature of the mysterious “dark matter” that accounts for almost 90 percent of mass in the universe. Dark matter is thought to be made up of an exotic, as of yet undefined type of elementary particle left over from the Big Bang and different in nature than those that make up visible matter. Similar deep underground laboratories exist in Canada and Europe. But there is one notable difference between the South Dakota laboratory and its competitors: The bulk of the funds for building the South Dakota laboratory were provided by a private individual, billionaire philanthropist Denny Sanford (though the U.S. Department of Energy has now taken over funding the lab’s operation and ongoing experiments).
The opening of a new laboratory should be cause for celebration, but there is an unpleasant subtext here. The Homestake site was supposed to house a far more ambitious new National Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, which would provide the deepest site on earth, allowing for scientific investigations into topics from dark matter to evolutionary biology. In 2010, however, the National Science Foundation—which had commissioned several R and D studies for such a laboratory and which had picked Homestake as one of two possible sites—decided to drop out of the project. Thus ended the prospect of a new national laboratory, and South Dakota, Sanford, and the DOE were forced to scramble to keep the smaller scale operation afloat. The deepest underground laboratory will remain in Sudbury, Canada—meaning that the United States has again ceded leadership in this aspect of laboratory infrastructure supporting frontier physics and astronomy.