WHAT'S UP: Astronauts deliver $2B experiment to the ISS

May 20, 2011

Did you know matter like stars and galaxies compose just 5 percent of the universe? The remaining 95 percent has not yet been identified. It’s not that we just haven’t somehow seen this material: Scientists have little idea what this matter really is.

The AMS-02 will, in coming years, shed some light on the nature of the so-called dark matter and energy that constitutes the majority of the universe.

Did you know that, although we live in a matter-dominated world, scientists believe that the universe should contain equal amounts of matter and so-called anti-matter? The universe seems to require every particle of normal matter to have an anti-matter cousin.

For example, the anti-matter cousin of an electron is a positron — a particle every bit like an electron, except for its electric charge: electrons are negative, positrons are positive.

Although anti-matter of all types has been created and detected in particle accelerators around the world, it is not found in any quantity in the space around us.

Where is all the anti-matter? The AMS-02 will also help answer this question.The AMS-02 team is led by Professor Samuel C.C. Ting, who is affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University and CERN (the European organization for nuclear research).

Ting was born in 1936 in Ann Arbor. He earned undergraduate degrees in mathematics and physics — in just three years — and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Michigan in 1962. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1976 for his discovery, with two other physicists, of a new type of elementary particle composed of a quark/anti-quark pair.

The AMS-02 is Ting’s brainchild. He proposed the instrument in 1995, not long after the superconducting super collider experiment in the U.S. was canceled.

At the core of the AMS-02 are two powerful magnets: one made of superconducting wire and the other of neodymium-alloy permanent magnets.

Have you ever played with those small, but surprisingly strong chrome-colored magnets? It’s likely you were playing with neodymium alloy. Imagine how strong of a magnet you could make if you carefully stacked 6,000 of those little magnets together — that’s how the AMS-02 permanent magnet is made.

Inside the AMS-02, these magnets will deflect to various detectors all kinds of sub-atomic particles and cosmic rays that pass through it into a suit of detectors. The sophisticated detectors will classify and determine the energy of each of these particles.

The AMS-02 weighed almost 19,000 pounds on Earth; of course, it is now weightless attached to the main truss of the ISS. It uses only about two times as much electrical power as a microwave oven and produces about 7 gigabytes of data every second — enough to fill almost two DVDs.

Data is processed and filtered onboard and downlinked to Earth at an average rate of 2 megabytes per second. The AMS-02 is expected to run continuously until at least 2020.

Ting and his collaborators and spectator scientists around the world hope that in the AMS-02 data will be answers to some of the most pressing questions of the nature of our universe.

Doug Furton is a member of the physics faculty at GVSU. Send questions and suggestions to dgf@inbox.com. An archive of some of his “What’s up” columns is available on-line at http://gegenschein.wordpress.com.

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