Scientists hunting the Higgs boson, the sub-atomic particle believed to have played a vital role in the creation of the universe, decided on Monday to turn up the power in their Large Hadron Collider to try to prove its existence this year.
The CERN research centre near Geneva wants to prove or disprove the existence of an invisible 'Higgs' field permeating the universe quickly, before the giant LHC machine is shut down for a long-term upgrade in late 2012.
"This means more Higgs, more quickly," said CERN spokesman James Gillies. The existence of the particle was postulated by British physicist Peter Higgs in 1964 but has never been proved.
According to the theory, the particle was the agent that made the stars, planets - and life - possible by giving mass to most elementary particles, the building blocks of the universe.
In the LHC, two beams of energy are fired in opposite directions around the 27 km (17 mile) pipe before slamming into each other, spawning particle collisions that recreate what happened a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, which brought the universe into existence 13.7 billion years ago.
By boosting the energy of each beam - from 3.5 Tera-electron Volts (TeV) to 4 - scientists will get three times more data from tens of millions of daily collisions, CERN said.
Physicists believe that without the Higgs boson and its associated 'particle field', debris from the Big Bang would never have coalesced to form galaxies, stars and planets.
In December two teams of researchers at CERN, the European particle physics centre, both said they had separately seen "tantalising glimpses" of what might be the Higgs during collisions inside the LHC, deep under the Swiss-French border.
But both groups need to gather enough information independently to claim formal discovery of the boson - or to conclude that there is no Higgs, at least in the form that they and others have been seeking since the mid-1980s.
Whether the existence of the Higgs is proved or disproved, a definitive answer would be a momentous event in modern physics, which combined with cosmology and astronomy is rapidly pushing back the frontiers of knowledge about the universe.
The LHC has been closed for a three-month winter break and is due to close again for 20 months from the end of 2012 for a major upgrade in its equipment and power.
"By the time the LHC goes into its first long stop at the end of the year, we will either know that a Higgs particle exists or have ruled out the existence of a Standard Model Higgs," said CERN Research Director Sergio Bertolucci.
The Standard Model is an overarching theory explaining how the known universe works, based on the work of Albert Einstein and his two theories of relativity early last century.
The Higgs is the last important element in the model whose existence has yet to be proven. If it is found not to exist, physicists will seek answers from the super-powered LHC when it starts up late in 2014.
The upgrade is intended to let the LHC investigate "New Physics", which includes concepts such as super-symmetry, dark matter, dark energy and parallel universes, long been the stuff of science fiction.
(Editing by Ben Harding and Kevin Liffey)