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Space Station Detector Sifts the Cosmic Fabric at an Unexpected Clip


The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, in white and perched atop the solar power truss of the International Space Station, is probing the origins of the universe. Photo Credit/NASA photo

Perched on the outside of the sprawling International Space Station,  the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is sifting through cosmic ray particles at twice the rate eager physicists estimated when the “big science” experiment was launched last year to sort out the mysteries of the big bang — the theorized enormous explosion that created the universe nearly 14 billion years ago.

The AMS, the particle physics equivalent of the Hubble Space Telescope, is an experiment developed by the U. S. Department of Energy with the collaboration of 600 physics, engineers and skilled technicians from 16 nations, including experts from Europe and Asia as well as theUnited States.

It was delivered to the space station by the crew of the shuttle Endeavour in May 2011.

As of late last week, 12.8 billion charged particles created by solar explosions and other high energy events throughout the universe had passed through AMS detectors — much like light waves enter a telescope That is twice as many as the science team, led by MIT physics research Sam Ting, anticipated, Trent Martin, NASA’s AMS project manager, told NASA TV.

 ”The AMS is a detector designed to probe the foundations of the universe. So, the data we gather from the AMS will be used for years to come to help to identify what the unverse was like in the beginning, what it’s like now, where we are going,” explained Martin. “We can look back almost to the beginning of the universe with AMS over the time frame we expect to be on the ISS. The longer you are there, the further in time you are looking. With that, we can see back to the origins of this universe.”

Specifically, Ting’s global team is searching for evidence of anti-matter, dark matter and other mysterious material that comprise the cosmic fabric along with ordinary matter — the stuff with which we are most familiary — hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, iron and the rest of the Periodic Table.

Shuttle Endeavour and a crew of six astronauts delivered the AMS to the space station in May 2011. Photo Credit/NASA photo

The big bang should have produced as much anti-matter as ordinary matter — or protons and electrons with the opposite electrical charge and the rest of the elements. But so far, naturally created anti-matter has eluded detection.

 Then, there is dark matter. The gravitational influence of dark matter is apparent to astronomers who study the structure of distant galaxies. Dark matter may comprise as much as 90 percent of the universe, though its composition is also a mystery.

A ground-based AMS would be ineffective.

 The Earth’s atmosphere would block cosmic rays with anti-matter, dark matter and perhaps other unknown particles called “strangelets” from reaching the planet’s surface.

The space station furnishes the one-of-a-kind AMS with solar energy for electricity and a satellite communications link to transmit a vast amount of data on the direction, mass and charge of each particle that enters the spectrometer.

The first science paper from AMS observations is possible sometime within the next year, Martin estimated.

The big observatory will likely continue its ambitious mission throughout the life of the space station, now expected to function through at least   2020.

The AMS is monitored by a ground team in Zurich, Switzerland at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

The research team is divided into two panels. The panels work independently to analyze AMS data and challenge the assertions of their colleagues.




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