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The hunt for antimatter begins at the space station: Will dilithium be next?

A $2 billion particle detector, newly installed on the International Space Station, begins its search for antimatter, dark matter, quarks, and more.

By Staff writer / May 19, 2011

This photo provided by NASA shows a close-up view of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS) in space shuttle Endeavour's payload bay, May 17. On May 19, astronauts used the shuttle's and space station's robotic arms to install the particle detector, which has already sent back reams of data to Earth-bound scientists.

NASA / Reuters


The most complex physics experiment ever launched into space was bolted to the International Space Station on Thursday, marking the start of an exploration into cosmic origins that could last well beyond a decade.

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The experiment, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer 2, arrived aboard the space shuttle Endeavour on Wednesday.

Its successful activation also marks the first truly national-laboratory-scale physical science experiment at a space station that, so far, has only conducted what on Earth might be considered bench-top experiments in biological and physical sciences.

Within a few hours of its installation, the $2 billion particle detector began returning "an enormous amount of data," says the project's lead scientist, Samuel Ting, a Nobel prize-winning physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The research team, which includes 600 physicists in 16 countries, will use the 7.6-ton instrument to study very high-energy, very massive cosmic rays, which only can be directly captured and measured in space.

In addition, they will be hunting for evidence of dark matter, some 90 percent of the matter in the universe. And they will try to help physicists and cosmologists figure out why the universe exists at all.

When it formed from the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago, the cosmos is thought to have contained equal amounts of normal matter and its mirror opposite, antimatter.

By all rights, the two should have annihilated each other, leaving nothing behind. But significant amounts of matter survived.

"The question is: Where is the universe made out of antimatter?" asks Dr. Ting. It's "an important question in physics," he adds, with a touch of understatement.

Installing the particle detector: The robot hand-off

During their Thursday workday, four astronauts conducted a carefully choreographed hand-off between shuttle and station.

The orbiter's robotic arm plucked the particle detector from the shuttle's massive cargo bay and gingerly offered it to the space station's robotic arm. The space station's arm just as carefully clasped the detector, and then gently set it into place on one of the station's support trusses.

Once it was locked in place and the power connections automatically made, controllers activated the detector, which began returning its first data.

The hand-off and installation took about three to four hours and went flawlessly, said to Derek Hassmann, the lead space-station flight director for the mission.


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