|The experiment was conducted by scientists at the same facility that houses the Large Hadron Collider [EPA]
An international team of scientists say they have recorded neutrino particles traveling at faster than the speed of light.
A spokesman for the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) particle physics centre announced the news on Thursday, a finding that could disprove aspects of Albert Einstein's theory that nothing can go faster than the speed of light (299,792,458 m/s, or 1,080 million km/hr).
The measurements still must be confirmed, but if verified, would represent a serious challenge to one of the fundamental rules of physics.
"We have high confidence in our results. But we need other colleagues to do their tests and confirm them," said Antonio Ereditato, who works at the CERN centre on the Franco-Swiss border.
Ereditato told the Reuters news agency that measurements over three years had shown neutrinos moving at 60 nanoseconds quicker than the speed of light over a distance of 730km between Geneva and Gran Sasso, Italy.
A nanosecond is one-billionth of a second. Light would have covered the distance in about 2.4 thousandths of a second. Ereditato, who also works at Berne University in Switzerland, described the difference in speed as "tiny".
"But, conceptually, it is incredibly important. The finding is so startling that, for the moment, everybody should be very prudent."
If confirmed, the discovery would challenge a key part of Einstein's 1905 theory of special relativity, which says that nothing in the universe can travel faster than light.
That assertion has withstood more than a century of testing, and is one of the key elements of the Standard Model of physics, which attempts to describe how the universe works.
Scientists say the margin of error on the measurements was 10 nanoseconds, which is a statistically significant figure. Given the enormity of the implications, however, they spent months checking and rechecking their results to ensure that there were no mistakes in the final conclusion.
The completely unexpected finding came from research on an experiment dubbed OPERA, which is run jointly by the CERN particle research centre near Geneva and the Gran Sasso Laboratory in central Italy.
A total of 15,000 beams of neutrinos, tiny particles that pervade the universe, were fired over a period of three years from CERN to Gran Sasso, where they were picked up by giant detectors.
To reach Gran Sasso, the neutrinos were fired out from a special installation at CERN - which is also home to the Large Hadron Collider - and passed through air, water and rock.
The underground Italian laboratory, located about 120km south of Rome, is the largest of its type in the world. Research on particle and cosmic physics forms the bulk of work at the lab.
CERN researchers are now looking to colleagues in the United States and Japan to confirm the results.
A similar experiment could be carried out at the Fermilab in Chicago to confirm the findings, Stavros Katsanevas, the deputy director of France's National Institute for Nuclear and Particle Physics Research, said.
Scientists at the Fermilab have promised to start such work immediately.
"It's a shock," said Stephen Parke, the Fermilab's head theoretician, who was not part of the research in Geneva. "It's going to cause us problems, no doubt about that - if it's true."
Katsanevas, who participated in the CERN experiment, said that help could also come from the T2K experiment in Japan, although operations there are currently on hold after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March this year.
"This would be such a sensational discovery if it were true that one has to treat it extremely carefully,'' said John Ellis, a theoretical physicist at CERN who was not involved in the experiment.
He said that if it were proven to be true, it would force a rethink of Special Relativity, a theory that underlies "pretty much everything in modern physics".
He cautioned that questions regarding why such results had not been observed before during events such as a supernova would also have to be answered.