Fabrice Coffrini, Associated Press
Scientists at CERN study computer screens Wednesday as the Large Hadron Collider fires particle beams near the speed of light.

Moving fast enough to circle a 17-mile-long underground tunnel nearly 11,000 times a second, streams of atomic particles signaled the start of a new era of research that scientists believe could unravel the universe's deepest mysteries.

At 2:28 a.m. MDT Wednesday, some 14 years and $10 billion after it was first designed, the Large Hadron Collider laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, was activated, officially becoming the world's largest atom smasher and the tool necessary to peer into the natural forces and matter that were the tiniest particles from the "big bang," the massive explosion scientists believe formed the earth, the planets, the stars and everything.

Physicists in Utah, which made a bid in 1987 to be the site of a supercollider program the U.S. Congress chose to locate in Texas but ultimately scrapped in 1993 because of its projected $12 billion price tag, said the LHC literally brings into the laboratory the fundamental nature of matter and why particles interact with each other the way they do.

"For the first time, we will be probing energy and densities similar to those the universe experienced in the moments immediately after the big bang," said Utah State University physicist Shane Larson. "We have no other way of probing this regime, but the LHC will tell us a lot about how the underlying model of particle physics works."

Near Geneva, the white dots that flashed in the five control room computer screens at CERN, the French acronym for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, are being hailed by scientists as blips of cosmic proportions.

"The first technical challenge has been met," said a jubilant Robert Aymar, director-general of CERN. "What you have just seen is the result of 20 years of effort. It all went like clockwork. Now it's for the physicists to show us what they can do ....

"Man has always shown he wants to know where he comes from and where he will go, where the universe comes from and where it will go. So here we're looking at essential questions for mankind," Aymar said.

Accelerator technology, like most experiments, is simply a way to replicate what nature does already but in a controlled environment where interactions can be watched closely, USU's Larson said.

"We build particle accelerators to break things down," he said. "Just like throwing a piggy bank against the wall to find out what is inside, when you throw subatomic particles at each other, you can discover what is inside them."

The smashing of atoms has revealed that the constituents of the nuclei of atoms — protons and neutrons — are actually made up of smaller particles called quarks. Over the years, the deeper science has been able to probe, the deeper the subatomic realm gets. The unprecedented power of the LHC provides power enough to go 10 times deeper.

The idea that science is replicating forces present when the universe began has created a stream of Internet speculation that scientists playing with forces at the beginning of the universe could be instigating the end of planet Earth.

Unknowns are part of it, Larson and other scientists said. But they note quickly they are as sure of LHC's safety as they are that it will lead to a number of discoveries.

"When the electron or the neutron were discovered in the late 19th and early 20th century, researchers had no idea what they would be used for," Larson said. "Yet today, electrons flow through every electronic device we have, and neutrons are important probes in nuclear medicine. The technology and societal returns are in some sense unknowable, but that is always the case with basic science."

Over the coming weeks, the LHC particle beams will gradually be filled with more protons and fired at near the speed of light in opposite directions around the tunnel. They will travel down the middle of two tubes about the width of fire hoses, speeding through a vacuum that is colder than outer space. At four points in the tunnel, the scientists will use giant magnets to cross the beams and cause protons to collide. The collider's two largest detectors — essentially huge digital cameras weighing thousands of tons — are capable of taking millions of snapshots a second.

The CERN experiments could also reveal more about "dark matter," antimatter and possibly hidden dimensions of space and time. It could also find evidence of a hypothetical particle — the Higgs boson — which is sometimes called the "God particle" because it is believed to give mass to all other particles, and thus to matter that makes up the universe.

The collider's start came over the objections of some who feared the collision of protons could eventually imperil the Earth by creating micro black holes — subatomic versions of collapsed stars whose gravity is so strong they can suck in planets and other stars.

"It's nonsense," said James Gillies, chief spokesman for CERN, which also received support for the project by leading scientists such as Britain's Stephen Hawking.

Gillies said the only risk would be if a beam at full power were to go out of control, and that would only damage the accelerator itself and burrow into the rock around the tunnel. No one would be endangered because the tunnel is evacuated when beams are being fired.

No such problem occurred Wednesday, although the accelerator is still probably a year away from full power.

The project organized by the 20 European member nations of CERN has attracted researchers from 80 nations. Some 1,200 are from the United States, an observer country that contributed $531 million. Japan, Canada, Russia and India — also observers — are other major contributors.

E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com