The world's most powerful cyclotron has just passed a crucial test, showing it can fire "cannon balls instead of BBs," and stands ready for some of the most promising experiments ever proposed by nuclear physicists, the National Science Foundation said Wednesday.

The NSF said scientists at the government-funded National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University succeeded Monday in bending a narrow, high-energy beam of neon nuclei so that it flew out of the cyclotron cleanly and hit a stainless steel target.That success, the NSF said, means the K800 cyclotron is ready for a series of atom-smashing experiments that could guide physicists to fundamental rules governing subatomic matter. It is hoped the studies eventually will lead to a better understanding of the forces directing cosmic events, such as the explosions of stars, or supernovas.

The energy of the test beam fired this week was 360 million electron volts, but the machine is capable of energies approaching 8 billion electron volts. By comparison, the world's second most powerful heavy-ion cyclotron, GANIL in Caen, France, has accelerated beams to energies of 4 billion electron volts.

The U.S. test means that precision beams of heavy nuclei can now be directed into laboratories at the East Lansing, Mich., facility for use in further experiments, the NSF said.

Scientists generated the K800 cyclotron's first high-energy beam in February, using its superconducting magnet to accelerate electrically charged helium and carbon nuclei in a tight spiral. Within the 7-foot-diameter confines of the cyclotron's magnetic field, the nuclei gradually attained a speed of more than 60,000 miles per second. The latest test succeeded in targeting a beam consisting of the cores of heavier atoms, opening the door to a wider array of discoveries.

"The K800 is unique for both the intensity and the uniformity of the beam of nuclei it can generate," said Henry G. Blosser, who originated the superconducting accelerator concept and who co-directs the facility along with MSU physics professor Sam Austin.

Blosser said the machine, for which construction began in 1980, "can accelerate a beam of nuclei of even the heaviest naturally occurring element, uranium, to speeds that will lead to nuclear reactions that have never been observed before."

"In comparison with pre-1980s cyclotrons, it's like being able to accelerate cannon balls instead of BBs."