From Sanford Underground Research Facility-SURF: “SURF formally creates research user association”

SURF-Sanford Underground Research Facility, Lead, South Dakota, USA.

From Sanford Underground Research Facility-SURF

Homestake Mining, Lead, South Dakota, USA.

Homestake Mining Company

December 21, 2020
Erin Lorraine Broberg

Researchers explore the fields particle physics, earth and life sciences at Sanford Lab.
Photo credits: by Nick Hubbard and Matthew Kapust.

User association fosters communication between users and SURF, promotes the case for underground science on the world stage.

As the nation’s deepest underground laboratory, Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) serves as a touchstone for the scientific community. Under nearly a mile of rock, physicists shield their sensitive experiments from the cacophony of cosmic rays from the Sun. Biologists hike through miles of drifts to far-off collection sites, gathering samples of water swimming with microscopic life forms called extremophiles. And geologists get the coveted experience of scrutinizing deep rock layers face-to-face.

This year, SURF formally created the SURF User Association (Association) to bring these researchers together. The Association, which currently has 288 active members, aims to promote open discussion between users and SURF management and foster community between users of diverse disciplines.

“As a research institution, it’s important that we have a vehicle to connect with researchers on a consistent basis,” said Jaret Heise, science director at SURF. Heise noted that communication channels existed previously, but the creation of a formal user association invites even greater participation from users.

The Association also encourages users to act as ambassadors for underground science at SURF on the world stage.

“As science communities define their priorities for the next decade, SURF and the scientists that perform research at our facility have a voice in that strategic planning,” Heise said. “Our users can advocate for the importance of underground science, and in particular they can advocate for the SURF facility as a location for future underground science.”

In December, the Association selected nine members to serve on the Executive Committee, which will conduct day-to-day business. The Executive Committee includes early career researchers, as well as representatives from physics, earth and life sciences, and six experiments operating at SURF.

Megan Smith, an earth scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is a member of the Association’s inaugural Executive Committee. Smith studies the Earth’s deep subsurface to better understand the potential of geothermal energy. In her field, direct access to deep underground rock is extremely valuable.

“As geologists, we only get a tiny, tiny sampling of what’s under the surface of the earth. We have to use small data points to make inferences about processes that occur at different depths and pressures,” Smith said. “The ability to examine the subsurface is invaluable. It hugely expands our capabilities to test our models of the Earth.”

As a member of EGS Collab/SIGMA-V, Smith has traveled to SURF multiple times since 2017. On Smith’s first trip, the team found a promising location for their experiment. On subsequent expeditions underground, they lined the drift with sensitive instruments to track how water travels through small pathways in the rock. Over the years, these tests have been instrumental in analyzing and refining the group’s models of the subsurface, informing future geothermal energy projects.

Smith recognized the importance of acting as an ambassador for underground science facilities.

“Working at SURF is an incredible opportunity. There are so many cool science questions that can only be answered in this type of space,” Smith said.

Ralph Massarczyk, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), is also a member of the SURF User Association’s Executive Committee. He began traveling to SURF six years ago, when he was a postdoc helping with the early construction of the Majorana Demonstrator [below].

Now a staff scientist at LANL, Massarczyk describes the growth he has seen at SURF: “From a researcher’s standpoint, things have become more user-friendly through the years. This Association will help users, especially the younger researchers, to have a point of contact to ask questions about how things work at SURF.”

Massarczyk said he looks forward to sharing research opportunities at SURF with colleagues in Europe, who may not know much about the facility. “SURF is getting more and more international, and this association is a nice podium for me to help spread out the word,” Massarczyk said.

Massarczyk noted that SURF is garnering local attention, too.

“The first time I came to Lead, I remember going to a restaurant and talking with locals. When they heard I worked at the lab, they would tell me which level they used to work on when it was a mine,” Massarczyk recalls. “Now, when I talk with people, they ask which experiment I’m with, and when I say ‘Majorana,’ they know the name. They’re familiar with the experiments. I would say the lab has helped shaped the town. It went from a mining town to people being excited about the science.”

Moving forward, the SURF User Association aims to connect and support our research communities, whether they are studying subatomic particles, microscopic extremophiles, vibrations in the rock and other questions for which the underground environment is a unique window.

For more information about the SURF User Association, visit our website:

See the full article here .

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About us: The Sanford Underground Research Facility-SURF in Lead, South Dakota, advances our understanding of the universe by providing laboratory space deep underground, where sensitive physics experiments can be shielded from cosmic radiation. Researchers at the Sanford Lab explore some of the most challenging questions facing 21st century physics, such as the origin of matter, the nature of dark matter and the properties of neutrinos. The facility also hosts experiments in other disciplines—including geology, biology and engineering.

The Sanford Lab is located at the former Homestake gold mine, which was a physics landmark long before being converted into a dedicated science facility. Nuclear chemist Ray Davis earned a share of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2002 for a solar neutrino experiment he installed 4,850 feet underground in the mine.

Homestake closed in 2003, but the company donated the property to South Dakota in 2006 for use as an underground laboratory. That same year, philanthropist T. Denny Sanford donated $70 million to the project. The South Dakota Legislature also created the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority to operate the lab. The state Legislature has committed more than $40 million in state funds to the project, and South Dakota also obtained a $10 million Community Development Block Grant to help rehabilitate the facility.

In 2007, after the National Science Foundation named Homestake as the preferred site for a proposed national Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL), the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority (SDSTA) began reopening the former gold mine.

In December 2010, the National Science Board decided not to fund further design of DUSEL. However, in 2011 the Department of Energy, through the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, agreed to support ongoing science operations at Sanford Lab, while investigating how to use the underground research facility for other longer-term experiments. The SDSTA, which owns Sanford Lab, continues to operate the facility under that agreement with Berkeley Lab.

The first two major physics experiments at the Sanford Lab are 4,850 feet underground in an area called the Davis Campus, named for the late Ray Davis. The Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment is housed in the same cavern excavated for Ray Davis’s experiment in the 1960s.

LBNL LZ project at SURF, Lead, SD, USA, will replace LUX at SURF

In October 2013, after an initial run of 80 days, LUX was determined to be the most sensitive detector yet to search for dark matter—a mysterious, yet-to-be-detected substance thought to be the most prevalent matter in the universe. The Majorana Demonstrator experiment, also on the 4850 Level, is searching for a rare phenomenon called “neutrinoless double-beta decay” that could reveal whether subatomic particles called neutrinos can be their own antiparticle. Detection of neutrinoless double-beta decay could help determine why matter prevailed over antimatter. The Majorana Demonstrator experiment is adjacent to the original Davis cavern.

LUX’s mission was to scour the universe for WIMPs, vetoing all other signatures. It would continue to do just that for another three years before it was decommissioned in 2016.

In the midst of the excitement over first results, the LUX collaboration was already casting its gaze forward. Planning for a next-generation dark matter experiment at Sanford Lab was already under way. Named LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ), the next-generation experiment would increase the sensitivity of LUX 100 times.

SLAC physicist Tom Shutt, a previous co-spokesperson for LUX, said one goal of the experiment was to figure out how to build an even larger detector.
“LZ will be a thousand times more sensitive than the LUX detector,” Shutt said. “It will just begin to see an irreducible background of neutrinos that may ultimately set the limit to our ability to measure dark matter.”
We celebrate five years of LUX, and look into the steps being taken toward the much larger and far more sensitive experiment.

Another major experiment, the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE)—a collaboration with Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) and Sanford Lab, is in the preliminary design stages. The project got a major boost last year when Congress approved and the president signed an Omnibus Appropriations bill that will fund LBNE operations through FY 2014. Called the “next frontier of particle physics,” LBNE will follow neutrinos as they travel 800 miles through the earth, from FermiLab in Batavia, Ill., to Sanford Lab.

FNAL LBNE/DUNE from FNAL to SURF, Lead, South Dakota, USA


U Washington Majorana Demonstrator Experiment at SURF

The MAJORANA DEMONSTRATOR will contain 40 kg of germanium; up to 30 kg will be enriched to 86% in 76Ge. The DEMONSTRATOR will be deployed deep underground in an ultra-low-background shielded environment in the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead, SD. The goal of the DEMONSTRATOR is to determine whether a future 1-tonne experiment can achieve a background goal of one count per tonne-year in a 4-keV region of interest around the 76Ge 0νββ Q-value at 2039 keV. MAJORANA plans to collaborate with GERDA for a future tonne-scale 76Ge 0νββ search.


CASPAR experiment target at SURF.

CASPAR is a low-energy particle accelerator that allows researchers to study processes that take place inside collapsing stars.

The scientists are using space in the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead, South Dakota, to work on a project called the Compact Accelerator System for Performing Astrophysical Research (CASPAR). CASPAR uses a low-energy particle accelerator that will allow researchers to mimic nuclear fusion reactions in stars. If successful, their findings could help complete our picture of how the elements in our universe are built. “Nuclear astrophysics is about what goes on inside the star, not outside of it,” said Dan Robertson, a Notre Dame assistant research professor of astrophysics working on CASPAR. “It is not observational, but experimental. The idea is to reproduce the stellar environment, to reproduce the reactions within a star.”