The "Big Bang" experiment at CERN near Geneva scored a world record on Monday by accelerating beams to the highest energy ever achieved in a particle collider, the research center announced.
Scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, said the achievement marked a major milestone on the way to tests next year which they hope will unlock secrets of the origins and make-up of the universe.
The energy of the twin beams circulated around 27-km tunnels deep underground went, at 1.18 trillion electric volts (TeV), well past the previous highest -- just under 1 TeV -- in a collider at the U.S. Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.
The achievement in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) came 10 days after the world's largest scientific experiment was restarted following an accident soon after its launch in September 2008.
"We are still coming to terms with just how smooth the LHC commissioning is going," said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer as the record was announced. "It is fantastic."
The beam energy now achieved in the LHC -- a vast complex of huge magnets, electronics and computers costing some $10 billion underground on the Franco-Swiss border -- leaves some way to go before the real "Big Bang" experiments can begin.
The object of these is to smash particles together at a force of some 7 TeV and create conditions one billionth of a second after the explosion 13.7 billion years ago that shaped the universe and everything in it.
Data gathered when those collisions occur will be recorded and analyzed by a network of 10,000 researchers not just at CERN at the foot of the French Jura mountains but also in some 30 countries around the world.
Scientists hope to learn how matter, and what is called anti-matter, was created and whether the so-called "Higgs Boson" -- which Scottish physicist Peter Higgs suggests helped matter come together -- actually exists.
But despite the rapid and seamless progress since the first beams were injected into the repaired LHC on November 20, leaders of the project remained cautious about the moment when they will start what they call "first physics."
Said Heuer: "We are continuing to take it step by step, and there is a lot to do before we start physics in 2010. I'm keeping my champagne on ice until then."
Over the next few weeks, scientists will move into a commissioning phase aimed at slowly increasing the beam intensity and producing good quality collision data that the monitoring machines can test their capacities on.
The first major collisions at 7 TeV are due to take place some time in the first quarter of next year, CERN says.