Scientists from the University of Chicago and Fermilab broke ground on a new physics experiment that could unlock the mystery of human existence — based off one particle’s journey through the surface of the earth.

Researchers will shoot subatomic particles 800 miles from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia to South Dakota, where a 70,000-ton detector will capture them for analysis. Construction on the detector began Friday; it’s all part of an ongoing effort to understand neutrinos, the most abundant — and yet mysterious — particle in the universe.

“This is a big deal,” said Edward Blucher, experiment co-spokesman and physics professor at the University of Chicago and the Enrico Fermi Institute. “This is the beginning of an experiment that can fundamentally affect the way we understand the universe, and it’s at a scale that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all of us.”

Crews will excavate more than 870,000 tons of rock from an old South Dakota mine to build detectors at the Sanford Underground Research Facility, where physicist Ray Davis discovered the neutrino in the 1960s. Researchers estimate data collection can begin in 2026 — a short wait to discover age-old cosmic secrets.

“I have a 9-year-old daughter,” Blucher said. “She’s just the right age to be able to do research on this data.”

Scientists say the nearly massless particles traveling at light-speed may hold the key to fundamental questions about the universe, including: Why are we here? What happened after the Big Bang? What is matter, anyway?

“We think neutrinos played a critical role in how the universe evolved into what it is today,” Blucher said.

The neutrino beam will travel 800 miles through Earth from Fermilab in Illinois to Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota. | Sandbox Studio/Fermilab

During their journey west, which will last four-thousandths of a second, the neutrinos will change type, or “flavor.” As Blucher puts it: “If you produce apple pie at Fermilab and send it 800 miles to South Dakota … it’ll arrive as a cherry pie.” Studying this change can help scientists understand the imbalance of matter and anti-matter created moments after the Big Bang, which resulted in “everything we’re made of — us, the planet, the stars.”

Fermilab will generate the world’s highest-intensity neutrino beam from a new detector at their DuPage County headquarters. The laboratory estimates construction will create almost 2,000 jobs in the Chicago area, with an economic impact of $1.1 billion.

The $1 billion experiment, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy as well as foreign partners, is the largest international science project the U.S. has ever hosted.