Joe Bauman, Deseret Morning News </i>
Work begins on a new cosmic ray observatory at Black Rock Mesa, 15 miles southwest of Delta.

A search of the universe has begun in western Utah with the down-to-earth simplicity of construction frameworks, pouring concrete and trenching the desert's rocky gray soil.

The first component of a $12 million to $18 million observatory is under construction at Black Rock Mesa, 15 miles southwest of Delta. Many other parts will be built over the next two years, in a search for clues about high-energy cosmic rays.

Japan is providing $12 million for the project while the U. and other American universities are seeking $6 million in federal funding, according to a University of Utah press release.

Cosmic rays are particles from space that slam into Earth's atmosphere at high velocities. Little is known about those of the highest energy levels.

One particle detected by the U. "Fly's Eye" observatory in 1991 carried the energy of 300 billion billion electron volts, the release points out. It adds, "billion twice is correct." That single subatomic particle carried as much wallop as a fast-pitched baseball.

According to the U., some ideas are that high-energy cosmic rays result from the physics of string theory; or they might be remnants of particles that flew out during the "big bang," the sudden creation of the universe.

Two other segments of the observatory are to be built on Long Ridge and at a site between the Drum and Little Drum mountains. (Long Ridge is close to the famous Antelope Spring trilobite beds.)

These sites will house "fluorescence detectors" to record the glow of cosmic rays as they streak through the atmosphere.

In addition, a ground array of 576 scintillation detectors will be built. These detectors, placed on stands about two feet tall, will be evenly spaced throughout an 18-mile by 22-mile parcel of desert west of Hinckley, Millard County. They will register the impact of particle showers resulting from the cosmic ray colliding with the gases of the atmosphere.

Five communications towers also are planned.

Official groundbreaking for the Black Rock Mesa facility was on Saturday, although that wasn't the start of building.

"There's a lot of construction already going on," said Kai Martens, assistant professor of physics at the University of Utah and one of the project's leaders. "It was a belated groundbreaking."

Japanese scientists using scintillation counters have obtained results that are puzzling and somewhat at odds with cosmic ray discoveries made by the U.'s air-glow detectors at the Army's Dugway Proving Ground. Using both techniques in the new Telescope Array may resolve the differences.

University of Utah scientists have operated cosmic ray observatories at Dugway for decades. The earlier version was called "Fly's Eye," and that was upgraded to a facility called the "High-Resolution Fly's Eye."

The Millard County observatory should begin its scientific work in about two years. A facility not on a military base is a nice change for scientists like Martens, who is a German national.

Dugway hosts top-secret research into ways that American troops can protect themselves against nerve agent and bacteria warfare. Even before the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, Army officials were nervous about the presence of non-U.S. citizens there.

In the summer of 2000, the Dugway observatory was closed while the National Security Agency conducted an assessment of its imaging capability, checking whether detectors could somehow spy on Dugway projects. The reflective mirrors are great for picking up dim lights in the sky caused when cosmic rays break up in the atmosphere, but make poor telescopes, and the NSA cleared the facility.

After 9/11, at first the Army only allowed people with security clearances onto Dugway. The cost of cosmic ray research shot up as scientists hired people with security clearances from Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M., to retrieve data.

Today, the Army allows scientists onto Dugway but only if they are U.S. citizens. Martens and other scientists who aren't citizens are kept off the base, he said.

"It is unfair to our colleagues who are American citizens who have to do the brunt of the work," he joked.

That won't be the case on the Bureau of Land Management and state property in Millard County.

What do scientists hope to accomplish there?

Most cosmic rays come from understood sources, such as ordinary stars and supernovae. But some of these particles are so powerful — the U. terms them "100 million times more energetic than anything produced by particle smashers on Earth" — that they must have stranger origins. Nobody knows exactly what these sources are.

Adding to the mystery, detections of these high-energy particles by the U. scientists and Japanese experts don't quite jibe. If the Japanese findings are correct "that poses enormous problems for our thinking about physics," Martens said.

Will the university's devices see showers of glowing particles at the same time that the Japanese devices detect cosmic rays? Using both types of detectors in the same observatory may resolve the issue.

Meanwhile, scientists are excited about the chance to chip away at the mystery and, perhaps, come up with a new understanding of the universe.

"Something is really fundamentally wrong," said Martens, "and this is where you learn something about science."

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