25 of the most expensive science experiments in human history

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December 5, 2019
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory // Wikimedia Commons

25 of the most expensive science experiments in human history

Technology, medicine, and biological research have advanced at dizzying rates in the last 100 years. Many concepts that today stand as iconic representations of scientific innovations, such as computers and space travel, simply didn’t exist at the start of the 20th century. Ushering in such remarkable progress required a lot of work—and a lot of funding.

Among the most expensive scientific experiments of all time is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), coming in somewhere between $14.3 billion and $17.6 billion. The nuclear fusion project, funded by 35 collaborating nations, should create the world’s largest magnetic fusion device. If it works, the tokamak would prove the usefulness of fusion as a source for carbon-free energy. But the ITER is not alone in the corridors of pricey scientific innovation. Stacker used a variety of sources to curate a gallery of 25 of the most expensive projects at the forefront of scientific research. From gargantuan lasers to deep-sea observatories, these experiments touch on a variety of disciplines—each ambitious in its scope.

Most of these innovations took place in the latter half of the 20th century, with several still in development. Scientific breakthroughs are coming at increasingly faster rates: Forbes in May 2019 published an article highlighting the past two decades alone as sparking unprecedented creativity, productivity, and output. Heading into a new decade, there are high hopes for what innovations the 2020s will bring. Past developments and access to innovative technology offer bright prospects for the future of scientific discovery.

Read on to discover some of the most ambitious scientific experiments, both in the past and now starting to come to light.

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NASA/Roscosmos // Wikimedia Commons

International Space Station

The International Space Station is the largest structure humans have ever put into space. The collaboration among 16 countries allows for an array of long-term scientific projects, including researching the effects of microgravity on human bodies, and how (or if) humans may ever explore other solar systems. As of August 2019, 218 spacewalks have been carried out from the space station, which orbits Earth 16 times a day. This effort cost around $150 billion, an expense NASA recently began trying to defray by offering visits for $35,000 a night.

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DJANDYW.COM // Flickr

Large Hadron Collider

CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is responsible for the Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator able to push protons and ions close to the speed of light hoping to discover the origin of mass, evidence for supersymmetry, the source of antimatter, and many other mysteries. The device is renowned for the 2012 discovery of the Higgs Boson, a subatomic particle that gives everything in the universe its mass. The cost for a machine capable of these feats? About $4.75 billion.

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NPCA Photos // Flickr

Manhattan Project

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers led the development of the Manhattan Project during World War II at a price tag then of almost $2 billion (around $23 billion in today’s dollars). With contributions from the U.K. and Canada, the Manhattan Project resulted in the invention of the first nuclear weapons, including the atomic bombs that would be dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As of 2015, the site of the project is now the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

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Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory // Wikimedia Commons

National Ignition Facility

The largest laser in the world, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) uses lasers to induce nuclear fusion reactions with the goal of nuclear weapons development and research. The U.S. Department of Energy funds the $3.5 billion laser lab. Besides national security, the facility’s lasers also help with research toward achieving carbon-free energy.

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NASA/JPL

Juno Spacecraft

Developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for $1 billion, Juno has was launched Aug. 5, 2011, and has been orbiting Jupiter since July 4, 2016. The spacecraft’s mission is to study the planet to discover how Jupiter formed, as well as key facts about its atmosphere and geography. Juno in February 2019 sent back a remarkably clear photo of Jupiter’s jet-stream.

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ENERGY.GOV // Wikimedia Commons

Spallation Neutron Source

The Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) conducts neutron scattering, which assists scientists in researching the molecular structure and properties of metals, biological samples, polymers, and a slew of other long-puzzling materials that can have ramifications for chemistry, physics, engineering, and biology. The facility took seven years to construct for the U.S. Department of Energy to the tune of about $1.4 billion. The first neutron production occurred on April 28, 2006.

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Z22 // Wikimedia Commons

Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC)

The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider is the only operating particle collider in the United States and can produce heat many thousand times hotter than the sun by colliding thousands of particles each second. Besides researching the spin structure of protons, the collider allows for the study of the first form of matter to exist in the universe, immediately after the Big Bang. The particle collider, which started operating in 2000, is operated by the U.S. Department of Energy and costs $160 million a year to maintain.

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NASA/JPL-Caltech // Wikimedia Commons

Curiosity rover

Curiosity is the name bestowed on a car-sized rover built by NASA for $2.5 billion that was launched Nov. 26, 2011, and has been exploring Mars since August 2012. The rover was developed to study Mars’ climate, geology, and plausibility for microbial life. To that end, Curiosity recently found unexplained oxygen on Mars. “Your friendly neighborhood NASA Mars rover” also tweets regularly.

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NASA/JPL-Caltech // Wikimedia Commons

Mars 2020 rover

Developed out of Curiosity’s success, NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover is expected to launch in July 2020. It is intended to study Mars’ ancient history, including past geology, and whether life has ever existed on the planet. The cost is estimated at $2.46 billion.

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Unknown // Wikimedia Commons

Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository

The U.S. lacks a long-term site for radioactive waste currently stored at a series of nuclear facilities around the country, a gap some in Congress hope to fix with the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository. The proposed facility is to be constructed deep within Nevada’s Yucca Mountain; however, while the project was approved in 2002, there have been waves of opposition from within the federal government and Nevada state government that have put the project on hold. Meanwhile, nuclear power plants continue storing waste in concrete casks. Congress could revive the project, which in 2008 the U.S. Department of Energy estimated could cost up to $96 billion to complete.

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Oak Ridge National Laboratory // Wikimedia Commons

International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor website promises “unlimited energy,” and at a cost of nearly $18 billion, it seems plausible it may deliver. The European Union is footing most of the cost of the reactor which is a collaboration among the EU, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. The enormous reactor which will weigh 23,000 tons, aims to produce enough fusion that it can be considered as an alternative for oil and coal.

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U.S. Department of Energy // Flickr

Advanced Light Source

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Advanced Light Source uses lower-energy soft X-ray light to research such things as the electronic structure of matter, atomic and molecular physics, and chemical reaction dynamics. One of the world’s brightest sources of ultraviolet and soft X-ray light, the particle accelerator cost $99.5 million to build.

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John Fowler // Wikimedia Commons

Very Large Array

The Very Large Array (VLA) is an interferometer comprising an arrangement of 27 radio telescopes spread in a Y-shape in New Mexico. The project, proposed in 1967 and formally completed in 1981, cost $78.6 million in 1972 dollars (around $477 million today). Astronomers use the VLA to study such things as black holes, gamma-ray bursts, radio galaxies, and more. The facility is a product of the National Science Foundation’s National Radio Astronomy Observatory. In September 2017 the Very Large Array Sky Survey began, an attempt to capture 80% of Earth’s sky in three scans, thus discovering around 10 million previously unknown objects.

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NOAA // Flickr

Neptune

Neptune is the world’s largest undersea observatory, a 500-mile seafloor loop of fiber-optic cable spread across the San Juan de Fuca tectonic plate. The structure allows for unprecedented ability, including plugging directly into the internet from the ocean floor and conducting long-term studies of seafloor volcanoes, earthquakes, and subduction zones. A joint effort between the National Science Foundation in the United States and Canada’s University of Victoria, the laboratory cost about $97 million to get underway.

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iwona_kellie // Flickr

Earthscope

Funded by the National Science Foundation and requiring $197 million to build, Earthscope is an observatory that uses geophysical techniques to record data over 3.8 million square miles. Including boreholes into an active fault zone, seismographs, tiltmeters, and magnetotelluric stations, Earthscope provides insight into the deep structure of the North American continent and its earthquakes and volcanoes, data it makes accessible to the public in real-time.

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US Gov/NASA // Wikimedia Commons

Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer

Mounted atop the International Space Station, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is a particle physics experiment detector that measures antimatter in cosmic rays, information used to understand the formation of the universe. Built by NASA for $2 billion, the particle detector also searches for dark matter and measures cosmic rays. The spectrometer project started in 1994, with several iterations before its completion in 2010. It was brought into orbit in 2011 by space shuttle Endeavor and continues measuring particles today.

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ESA, M. Trovatello // Wikimedia Commons

Copernicus program

The Copernicus program is a partnership between the European Union, European Space Agency, and EU member states and agencies, intended to use global data from Copernicus satellites around the world to provide a comprehensive, continuous observation and assessment of the planet’s “health.” Pulling from various ground, sea, and airborne stations, Copernicus offers continual data about the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land, and climate. The goal is to provide the public with information for a variety of initiatives, including emergencies and security. Its estimated cost upon completion in 2020 is $7.4 billion.

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Will Huntington // U.S. Air Force photo

Human Genome Project

One of the most ambitious science projects of the second half of the 20th century, the Human Genome Project attempted to identify and sequence all the genes within the human genome. It was the world’s largest collaborative biological project, including the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, and several other countries, at a cost of around $5 billion. The idea was to help make advances toward understanding, identifying, and predicting an array of diseases, including cancer. The project finished in 2003 and made the results available to scientists and researchers.

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Chris Gunn/NASA // Wikimedia Commons

James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope is NASA’s improvement on the Hubble Space Telescope, expected to operate in a much lower frequency range, allowing for observation of objects older and more distant than the Hubble was capable of. Such improved resolution and sensitivity, it is hoped, will enable investigations into some of the most distant events in the universe, including the formation of galaxies. The telescope cost $9.66 billion and has a planned space launch of March 2021.

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Trougnouf // Wikimedia Commons

MYRRHA

The MYRRHA—Multi-purpose hYbrid Research Reactor for High-tech Applications—couples a nuclear reactor to a proton accelerator for the first time, an innovation that ambitiously guarantees a reliable supply of radioisotopes for medicine and offers the potential for scientific breakthroughs in fields such as nuclear physics and fundamental interactions. Managed by the Belgian Center for Nuclear Research, the project has a total budget of $1.8 billion.

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Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb // U.S. Air Force photo

Human Cell Atlas

In the same vein as the Human Genome Project, the Human Cell Atlas aims to map all the estimated 37.2 trillion cells in the human body. The project is a consortium of nearly 900 different institutions across the globe who hope that by creating a reference guide to all human cells, we will understand, diagnose, and treat diseases more accurately and rapidly. It is not known exactly how much this project is expected to cost, but the project in 2019 received $68 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and $13 million from Helmsley Foundation, suggesting quite a high price tag for the effort.

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Airman 1st Class Mike Meares // United States Air Force photo

Global Positioning System

Developed for use by the U.S. Air Force, the Global Positioning System (GPS) became available to the public in the 1980s. With how much we now use it in our daily lives, it is easy to forget how remarkable of a project it was. A satellite-based radio navigation system, GPS provides geolocation and time information anywhere on—or near—the planet, anytime. The satellites initially cost $12 billion to put into orbit, and the system costs about $2 million a day to operate.

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Amber Stuver // Wikimedia Commons

Advanced LIGO

The Advanced LIGO—Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory—is a physics observatory able to detect cosmic gravitational waves at a much higher sensitivity than the original LIGO. The brainchild of Caltech and MIT, Advanced LIGO cost $1.1 billion to develop. As of December 2018, Advanced LIGO had observed 11 gravitational waves; 10 from black hole mergers, and one a collision of two neutron stars, the first time this has ever been detected.

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Atomic Taco // Flickr

Watson

Recognizable to the public thanks to a 2011 appearance on “Jeopardy!,” Watson is a computer system developed by IBM capable of answering questions and interacting as a human would. IBM hopes Watson can be improved and developed for the legal and medical fields, as well as the government and elsewhere. Though the company has not said how much it has cost to develop Watson, the figure was estimated at between $900 million and $1.8 billion, according to a CNN report in 2010.

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NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cancer research

No one organization has been working to find a cure for cancer. But since 1971, the National Cancer Institute alone has spent at least $90 billion on research and treatment with rising expenditures each year. The institute uses wide-ranging, interdisciplinary efforts to find a cure, including engineering dual-function viruses, altering diets in mice, and preclinical drug trials.

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