Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 24  |  Friday, March 30, 2001  |  Number 6
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Dispatch From Malargüe

by Paul Mantsch, project Manager,
Pierre Auger Observatory

"Projecto Auger en Marcha" headed a recent article in Los Andes, the leading newspaper of Mendoza Province. Progress on the Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory in Mendoza, Argentina is now, indeed, clearly visible. It is thrilling to watch as the first of 1600 particle detectors begin to spring up on a thousand-square-mile expanse of desert known locally as the Pampa Amarilla or yellow pampa.

From the window the flourescence telescope building On top of a rounded volcanic cone on the southern edge of the observatory site stands a light-blue semicircular building with six large windows with a sweeping view of the sky over the pampa. This newly completed building will enclose the first six of 30 telescopes to be placed around the site. On dark nights these telescopes will record the faint streaks of fluorescent light made by giant cosmic ray air showers as they cascade through the atmosphere toward the particle detector array spread out below. By day windows reveal a strikingly beautiful panorama of the many and varied pastel desert hues stretching to the horizon of this ancient lakebed. To the west stand rugged, snow-capped mountains, some of the highest in the Andes. The particle detector stations out on the pampa, built around 3,000-gallon water tanks, are not easy to see. Each tank is colored light beige to match the dominant color of the surrounding desert and is often only revealed by an occasional glint of the sun from one of the solar panels.

At night the clear Southern Hemisphere sky presents a dazzling display of stars. We are, after all, looking at the very center of the Milky Way. This is an important reason for building the first site of the Auger Observatory in Argentina. Theorists are becoming more intrigued by the possibility that the mysterious, extremely-high-energy cosmic rays may come from the equally mysterious dark matter halo surrounding our galaxy. This is but one of the many ideas that attempt to explain the source of the extremely rare but enormously energetic messengers from space. We will later build a second identical observatory site in the Northern Hemisphere so that, as the earth turns, we will be able to search for sources of high-energy cosmic rays from the entire sky.

On the outskirts of the town of Malargłe the tree-lined Auger Campus is taking shape. In the middle of what was until recently a tree nursery the first campus building, the Detector Assembly Building, and an adjacent communications tower have just been completed. This smallish industrial building with electronics and mechanical shops will be a center of detector building and maintenance activity for the observatory. The 150-foot tower soaring above the trees behind the Assembly Building will be topped with antennas that will gather in the signals sent by all of the observatory's detectors. The Assembly Building will soon be joined by the Auger Center Building. The Auger Center building, funded by a gift of $1M from the University of Chicago, will be home to the data acquisition system, a visitor's center and a place for scientists to hang out. All of the buildings were designed by a talented team of local architects and bear the unmistakable touch of artists.

Auger collaborators preparing for the parade in Malargü Malargüe is a friendly town. The people have accepted with good grace the onslaught of hundreds of scientists and engineers speaking of capturing strange objects from space, often in languages that they don't understand. This friendship crystallized recently when we were asked to participate in a parade to help celebrate the anniversary of the town. With the Auger banner in the fore, nearly a hundred of us walked, somewhat befuddled, to the applause and cheers of the town's people. It was a moment of glory not unlike, we later imagined, what might be accorded to rock stars. We have grown very fond of this remote, dusty town and its people. We value the friendship of the people of Malargłe, as we have become a part of their lives and they of ours.

It is a rare and exciting opportunity to be building a new laboratory. Driven by the vision of uncovering the secrets that lie at the heart of mysteries of the high-energy particles from space, we savor years of the long hours, the mud, the scorching desert sun and the wind-blown sand. Nature does not reveal her secrets easily. But that's what doing science is all about, and it's great fun. I wish our friend Bob Wilson were there to help us. I bet he would have loved it. Auger assembly building

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last modified 3/16/2001 by C. Hebert   email Fermilab