Scientists at the world's largest atom smasher are getting their first look at the conditions which existed moments after the big bang of creation.
Physicists working on the ALICE experiment in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), under the Franco-Swiss border, have started smashing heavy lead ions together at close to the speed of light - in the process recreating the universe as it was 13.7 billion years ago.
The successful collision of lead ions in the accelerator at record energies allows matter to be probed as it would have been in the first moments of the Universe's existence.
Quark Gluon Plasma
Dr David Evans from the University of Birmingham, describes the collisions as mini Big Bangs, creating the highest temperatures and densities ever achieved in an experiment.
Evans says it's generating incredibly hot and dense sub-atomic fireballs with temperatures of over ten trillion degrees, a million times hotter than the centre of the Sun.
"At these temperatures even protons and neutrons (which make up the nuclei of atoms) melt - resulting in a hot dense soup of quarks and gluons known as a Quark-Gluon Plasma," he says.
By studying this plasma, physicists hope to learn more about the Strong Nuclear Force, one of the four fundamental forces of nature.
The others are the weak nuclear force, the electromagnetic force and gravity.
Evans says the Strong Force not only binds the nuclei of atoms together but is responsible for 98% of their mass.
"I now look forward to studying a tiny piece of what the universe was made of just a millionth of a second after the Big Bang," he says.
This new phase of the LHC program comes after seven months of successfully colliding hydrogen proton packets at high energies.
Alice watches the rabbit hole
The 10,000 ton ALICE experiment has been specifically designed to study the extreme conditions produced in these lead-ion collisions.
It's one of four main detectors on the giant 27 kilometre underground ring designed to offer up insights about the earliest moments in our universe's life.
Dr Stephen Myers, the director of accelerators and technology at CERN is in Australia at the moment.
He says the high energy levels involved in lead ion collisions means things could start happening very quickly.
"Lead ions are much more complicated particles than hydrogen protons and so it's a very exciting time."
"We're slamming these ions into each other at over 99.9 per cent of light speed", Myers says, "but it's not the speed, it's the huge mass and energy levels which is important."
Until now the main thrust of the LHC has been the search for the Higgs Boson the so called god particle that's thought to generate a Higgs field which would give all other particles their mass.
But Myers points out other important experiments are also being carried out, including the search for antimatter, dark matter and supersymmetry.
"It's all about finding new physics, that's why we built the LHC", says Myers.