By Robert Evans
GENEVA (Reuters) - Top international physicists on Monday met to discuss how to push forward construction of a "dream machine" -- a vast, multi-billion dollar particle smasher that would take cosmic research into a new era.
Gathering for four days at CERN near Geneva, scientists and heads of major research centers around the globe are looking at how to combine resources and funding for the project, the International Linear Collider (ILC).
"The science of particle physics has reached a decisive moment. Experiments at particle accelerators, together with observations of the cosmos, bring unprecedented opportunities for discovery," a statement from the organizers said.
The meeting comes on the heels of the closure last Friday after 26 years in operation of the world's first major accelerator, the U.S. Fermilab's Tevatron, leaving CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) alone to carry the baton.
But scientists have long known that to fully explore many small hints picked up by the mighty LHC of what they dub "worlds beyond worlds" in the makeup of the cosmos, another type of machine would be needed.
The new collider is set to be a "linac" or straight-path machine, unlike the LHC which swings particles around an oval-shaped 26-km (17-mile) underground tunnel to get them to all but the speed of light before smashing them together.
But it would still, its designers say, like the LHC, create billions of miniature simulations of the "Big Bang" 13.7 billion years ago which brought the universe into being.
And because it would be smashing together electron particles and their negative energy counterparts, positrons, it would, scientists working on the project say, provide results with extraordinary, telescope-like precision.
The ILC was formally launched with the appointment of a design team in 2005, and that group is due to report by the end of next year, with the outline plan that construction could get under way within the following 5-8 years.
But there are looming doubts over how it will be financed, even as a joint project backed by many countries.
The International Committee for Future Accelerators, or ICFA, which organized this week's gathering at CERN, a 20-nation European enterprise now aiming to draw in countries from other continents, is the midwife of the ILC.
ICFA, linking specialists from Asia, Europe and North America, was itself set up in 1976 to ease international collaboration for the building and use of high-energy physics accelerators.
However, costs for the new collider, which were originally estimated at around $6 billion in 2007, are understood to have soared since then and another global financial crisis could bring more problems.
Still to be decided is where it would be built. The United States is unlikely -- although government science officials have said they could take up to 25 per cent of the cost -- and European governments are also cash-strapped.
Japan made clear last month it is keen, and officials and particle physicists have earmarked two possible locations, saying the ILC could provide the center for a new "science city" providing hundreds of jobs.
Other candidates to host it include China and Russia, which both have long traditions of particle research.
(Reporting by Robert Evans; editing by Andrew Roche)