7 Most Extreme Laboratories on Earth
The International Space Station in orbit
Researchers will go to all kinds of extremes in the name of science. In fact, some study takes place well outside normal human comfort zones – sometimes even outside our planet altogether. These seven laboratories around the world are examples of the more unusual environments in which experimentation takes place. And whether they’re in the shadow of mountains or under the ocean, all of them help us make potentially valuable insights into the workings of our universe.
7. The World’s Coldest Physics Laboratory – IceCube Neutrino Observatory, Antarctica
Image: Emanuel Jacobi/NSF
The IceCube Neutrino Observatory
Strange as it may seem, some of the most useful equipment at the forefront of detecting high-energy neutrinos – subatomic particles known to originate from violent astronomical phenomena like exploding stars – is not a telescope in space, but rather an array of sensors deep below the Earth’s surface. The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is located in the frozen wastes of Antarctica, under a thick layer of ice. Here, the neutrinos will sometimes react with water molecules to produce Cherenkov radiation, which can be picked up by photomultiplier tubes (PMTs).
Image: Patrick Cullis/NSF
IceCube under the aurora australis
To create IceCube, spherical sensors known as Digital Optical Modules (DOMs) – containing the PMTs – were positioned on strings at depths of between 4,757 and 8,038 feet (1,450 and 2,450 meters). The DOMs range over 0.23 cubic miles (1 cubic kilometer) of ice, making them part of not only the coldest physics laboratory on Earth, but also the world’s largest neutrino observatory. The raw data collected at the observatory adds up to one terabyte daily, of which approximately 100 gigabytes are transmitted for analysis.
6. The World’s Hottest Temperature-Producing Laboratory – Brookhaven National Laboratory, Long Island, New York, USA
Image: Courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratory
The Solenoidal Tracker at RHIC (STAR)
In February 2010, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory announced that it had produced a temperature of around 7.2 trillion degrees Fahrenheit (4 trillion degrees Celsius). It was the hottest temperature ever created by man: a staggering 250,000 times greater than the heat at the sun’s center. This incredible achievement was brought about by colliding gold ions at almost the speed of light, creating a quark-gluon plasma – a soup of elementary particles that only existed in nature a tiny fraction of a second following the Big Bang.
Image: Courtesy Brookhaven National Laboratory
The STAR detects and tracks the thousands of particles yielded by every ion collision at RHIC.
The RHIC is the world’s second most powerful heavy ion collider after the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. It is also the only facility in the world able to collide polarized protons in order to examine how protons get their spin. In fact, in addition to producing record-breaking temperatures, the RHIC also holds the record for the highest-energy polarized protons ever seen.
5. The World’s Highest Terrestrial Laboratory – The Pyramid Laboratory, Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal
Image: YouTube/Lorenzo Pini
The Pyramid Laboratory, high in the Himalayas
The Louvre in Paris isn’t the only place able to boast a large, world-renowned glass pyramid. High in the Himalayas, in the Sagarmatha National Park of Nepal, stands a three-story-high pyramid-shaped laboratory and observatory made out of glass, steel and aluminum. The lab is located 16,568 feet (5,050 meters) above sea level, at the base of Mount Everest. Research done here extends across subjects including geology, the climate, the environment and human physiology.
Image: YouTube/Lorenzo Pini
A close-up of panels on the Pyramid Laboratory
The pyramid lab is the creation of the Ev-K2-CNR, a committee dedicated to promoting technical and scientific high-altitude research. It is separated into three levels; the first two of these contain various laboratories and warehouses, while the third is devoted to data processing and telecommunications. The pyramid has become a landmark not only to scientists, but also to the locals and tourists who sometimes make use of its telecoms facilities.
4. The World’s Deepest Underwater Laboratory – The NOAA Aquarius Reef Base, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Florida, USA
A diver at the Aquarius Reef Base
With so much yet to be discovered about the oceans, it may come as less of a surprise to hear that the NOAA Aquarius laboratory is the deepest undersea lab in the world than to learn that it holds this status due to the fact that it is the only one of its kind still in operation. (Earlier undersea research stations such as the Conshelf III and a cabin of the Conshelf II went deeper beneath the waves, but they were operational in the 1960s.) The Aquarius lab sits around 50 to 60 feet (15 to 18 meters) below the water’s surface in a marine sanctuary in the Florida Keys. For the past two decades, researchers have been using it as an underwater base while they study the ecology of the reef around them. The facilities include six bunks and a bathroom, plus windows onto the watery world outside.
Image: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Another look at the Aquarius lab
Marine biologists aren’t the only people to make use of the Aquarius laboratory. NASA has also used the facility to prepare astronauts for the weightlessness and solitude of outer space. And on September 30, 2013, oceanographer Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of legendary explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, plans to spend 31 days at the base with five teammates. His plans include creating a 3D IMAX documentary, trying out the latest underwater motorcycles, conducting important ecological research, and raising awareness about the lab, which is in desperate need of funding in order to continue.
3. The World’s Largest Particle Physics Laboratory – CERN, Geneva, Switzerland and France border
An aerial view of CERN showing the underground Large Hadron Collider tunnel
Located close to Geneva, the laboratory of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) spans more than 100 hectares (250 acres) of Switzerland and over 450 hectares (1,125 acres) of France – and the site is still looking to grow. The Large Hadron Collider is itself housed in a tunnel 492 feet (150 meters) below ground that stretches for 17 miles (27 kilometers), and there are plans to build another tunnel that will be three times this size. Still, considering the fact that the research being done at the facility aims to uncover clues about the nature of the universe itself, its massive scale is perhaps to be expected.
Image: CERN/Maximilien Brice
A look at a section of the Large Hadron Collider
CERN was founded with the intention of supporting collaboration between scientists of different nations, and it has certainly succeeded in this goal. Currently, as many as 10,000 scientists and engineers from 113 different countries use the facility. In addition, it employs nearly 2,400 full-time staff and 1,500 part-time employees. Since it was founded in 1954, important and even Nobel Prize-winning discoveries have been made at the research center. It is also responsible for vital technological developments like the World Wide Web.
2. The World’s Deepest Underground Laboratory – SNOLAB, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
An icy tunnel at SNOLAB
Like IceCube, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNOLAB) in Ontario, Canada observes deep space phenomena far below the surface of Earth. It is located inside a nickel mine that is 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) deep. Below ground, the laboratory encompasses 16,404 square feet (5,000 square meters) of space, while above ground the facility boasts a 3,100 square-meter (10,170 square-foot) support building.
An experiment in progress at SNOLAB
Research at SNOLAB focuses on astroparticle physics, including cosmic dark matter searches, low-energy solar neutrinos and supernova neutrino searches. However, scientists from various other fields, including geophysics and seismology, have also expressed interest in working at the facility, which could also be useful to underground biology researchers.
1. The World’s Highest-Altitude Laboratory – International Space Station, Outer Space
Image: Oleg Dmitriyevich Kononenko
Russian commander Sergey Alexandrovich Volkov can be seen operating a manual crane during the seventeenth trip to the International Space Station.
There’s no denying the International Space Station’s (ISS) status as the most extreme science laboratory of them all. In terms of altitude, inhospitable environment and indeed speed, there’s nothing quite like it. The ISS travels around the Earth at orbital altitudes ranging from 205 to 270 miles (330 to 435 kilometers), zipping along at a speed averaging 17,227 mph (27,724 km/h). The impressive space station is 239 feet (72.8 meters) long and 356 feet (108.5 meters) wide.
The International Space Station photographed from Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2007
The ISS is used for a variety of experiments in fields including human biology, meteorology, physics and astronomy. Its almost weightless environment – the result of its constant state of freefall and not the zero gravity of outer space, as many think – means that it provides a unique setting for research. Astronauts from 15 different countries have visited this giant moving lab since November 2000. The ISS is expected to stay in operation until at least 2020, although it could remain in service till as late as 2028.