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Constance Walter

Just over a year ago, the Ross Campus looked very much like it had during mining days. Today, the world-class research space houses CASPAR (Compact Accelerator System for Performing Astrophysical Research) and the Black Hills State University Underground Campus (BHUC). While CASPAR is assembling its accelerator and expects to be operational in the summer, BHUC is open for business—the business of research. 

The BHUC has a class-1,000 cleanroom that houses ultra-sensitive low background counters that assay materials for sensitive physics experiments. Currently, two counters from U.C. Berkeley are in operation; another four are expected to be installed this year. Eventually, the facility plans to house 10 counters from different collaborators, including Berkeley, the University of South Dakota, Brown University and BHSU. Most of the counters look for gamma rays, while others will be sensitive to surface alpha particles. One instrument proposed by the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology will look for beta contamination. 

"Low background materials are vital to nearly all underground physics experiments," said Dr. Brianna Mount, a research assistant professor at BHSU and lab director of the underground campus. Assaying backgrounds of different materials also helps model the background of the detectors, while offering students the opportunity to work with experts on gamma ray spectroscopy. 

BHSU manages the campus, but it is open to students across the state and across disciplines. While physics students work with the low background counters, students from other disciplines can work on research in two areas adjoining the counting cleanroom. "Biology students can study microbes in situ and geology students can study the unique rock formations," Mount said.  

"We're very excited that students have access to Sanford Lab and the unique environment of the 4850 Level," Mount said. But it's not just college students who will benefit from the underground campus. 

Even K-12 students can participate, Mount said. For example, a pilot program will pair 16 middle school students with BHSU students to create robots for an underground competition. The college students will take the robots to an underground obstacle course where the robots must complete a mission. The middle school students will be able to watch via videoconferencing. K-12 students can also learn more about the science at Sanford Lab through videos and games that will be offered on the BHSU website.

Opportunities for research and education and outreach are growing, Mount said. She encourages students interested in pursuing education projects to vist the website at Researchers may contact Mount directly at