Space Station Experiment to Hunt Antimatter Galaxies
An artist's concept of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer installed on the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA/MIT

Antimatter galaxies and dark matter have long haunted physicists' theories, but no instrument in orbit has had the power to confirm or deny their existence. Now a $1.5 billion cosmic ray detector scheduled for launch in 2010 could usher in a new era for discovering all that's weird and wonderful about the universe.

Cosmic rays consist of high-energy particles that emerge from catastrophic events such as supernovas, and may also hold the clues to whether antimatter galaxies and dark matter truly exist. Detecting cosmic rays firsthand from the ground has proved difficult, because they collide with atoms in Earth's atmosphere and break up into a shower of secondary particles.

"Earth's atmosphere absorbs everything, so you cannot study primary cosmic rays until you go to space," said Samuel Ting, an MIT physicist who first proposed a large cosmic ray detector back in 1994.

Now just months from completion, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) represents years of work by NASA and the Department of Energy to overcome the challenges of putting a superconducting magnet into space. It also holds the hopes of an international physics community that wants to finally tackle some of the longest-standing questions behind the universe.

The mission to launch the spectrometer was initially canceled by NASA in the wake of the 2003 Columbia tragedy. But NASA reinstated it after Congress approved funding for an extra shuttle flight to the International Space Station. That flight is slated to launch in either July or September 2010.

Bend it like a magnet

A large superconducting magnet allows AMS to analyze the charged particles of cosmic rays, given that the particle paths curve in the presence of magnetic fields. The charged particles then pass through a number of detectors that allow scientists to figure out whether the particles are protons or electrons, or even anti-electrons known as positrons that might signal the existence of dark matter.

Crunching the data from the sensors requires an onboard supercomputer that combines 650 computer units and uses 2.5 kilowatts of power ? far more power than a satellite's solar panels can normally provide. That means AMS must find a home on the International Space Station, where the Canadian robot arm will help install the instrument on an outside truss.

But putting a magnet in space has long frustrated scientists because of the magnetic compass effect, Ting told Just as the magnet in a compass rotates to point north due to Earth's magnetic field, the large AMS magnet would want to rotate along with the entire space station.

"The task of building a space-qualified superconducting magnet is a very, very hard one," said Ben Monreal, a physicist at the University of California in Santa Barbara. He worked on one of the AMS sensors as a grad student at MIT, but also observed how engineers at NASA and Space Cryomagnetics, Ltd. worked around the magnet problem.

Engineers ultimately used a set of racetrack coils that canceled out the dipole magnetic field outside AMS, and will prevent the instrument from giving space station residents a case of the dizzies.

Catching bigger fish than CERN

An Italian satellite called PAMELA launched in 2006 with the capability of detecting some antimatter particles such as positrons. But AMS has about 250 times the sensitivity of such existing instruments for detecting high-energy particles.

The AMS magnetic setup also resembles that of the Large Hadron Collider, or the most powerful particle accelerator in the world located at CERN in Switzerland. The underground particle accelerator sends protons zooming around a 17-mile-long circular track and smashes them together to create combined energies of 7 tera-electronvolts (TeV).

Still, that fades in comparison to cosmic ray particles that may have energies of 100 million TeV or more.

"The space station [AMS device] can detect particles of practically unlimited energy," Ting noted. Those include positrons that may suggest collisions between particles of dark matter thought to make up 90 percent of the universe.

Finding evidence of anti-helium or heavier antimatter elements could also provide strong proof of antimatter galaxies, given that the heavier elements would only emerge from stars in an antimatter galaxy. AMS would cover any possible antimatter galaxies out to about 1,000 megaparsecs, or about the edge of the observable universe.

Bumpy space odyssey

The 15,000 pound cosmic ray detector remains just months away from delivery to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it can prep for a 2010 launch to the space station aboard one of the last space shuttle flights. But physicists can still recall the long battle to move AMS forward to this point.

One of the bleaker moments came after NASA lost the space shuttle Columbia in a 2003 tragedy. The space agency told physicists that no room existed for AMS aboard remaining shuttle flights, at least until more recent schedule reshufflings that added shuttle flights.

"It's been up and down," Monreal recalled. "I can think of three or four cycles where it looked [like] it was completely dead, and then things looked up."

Ting and other physicists have already begun working around the clock to ensure that everything checks out with the cosmic ray detector. They also plan to monitor AMS 24 hours a day, seven days a week after launch using a control room and working in shifts. The plan, they hope, will help to hit scientific pay dirt when the instrument begins analyzing the heavens.

"Certainly for me, it's the most difficult experiment I've ever done," Ting said. "That's why we want to take the time to get it right."