Orbiting Magnet Will Look for Anti-Matter and Other Charged Particles

The space shuttle Endeavour flew back to earth last week, bringing home astronaut Mark Kelly and his crewmates. But scientists are more interested in what the shuttle left behind — a particle detector now clamped onto the outside of the orbiting space station. KUHF Health, Science and Technology reporter Carrie Feibel spoke with Rice University physicist Paul Padley about the alpha magnetic spectrometer, or AMS.

Outer space is full of charged particles flying every which way through the vacuum.

Some of them come from sun storms. Others could be relics from the Big Bang. And others — well, we don’t know exactly where they come from, or why they exist.

Paul Padley at Rice says that scientists can study these particles on earth.

But it’s been a long-time dream to put a detector in orbit, where the particles are far more plentiful and less corrupted.

“So when we make detectors on the earth, a lot of that information gets washed out by all the interactions that are happening as the particles travel through the atmosphere. So the hope is by looking up in space you can make a better map of where this material’s coming from and what its properties are.”

ams on the iss
The newly-installed Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 is visible at center of the International Space Station's starboard truss. The top image is closeup of the AMS. Image Credit: NASA

The alphamagnetic spectrometer is the brain child of Sam Ting, an MIT professor.

Hundreds of scientists from 16 countries helped build it.

It weighs seven tons, which is why it needed the space shuttle to get it off the ground.

At one point, after the Columbia accident, NASA cancelled the delivery of the AMS to space.

“I was surprised — is the most polite word I can think of.”

Dr. Ting had to lobby hard to get the delivery back on the shuttle schedule.

“People joined this because they found the physics compelling. That’s why we managed to finish.”

The AMS is a doughnut-shaped magnet. As particles whiz through, detectors will measure their velocity and other characteristics.

So what will it find?

Padley says many scientists are going to be looking for anti-matter.

Current theories predict that for every piece of matter in the universe, a piece of anti-matter should also exist.

And yet — anti-matter is very rare. It’s hard to find and hard to make in the lab.

“Every observation we make, it looks like there was a Big Bang happened. The one exception being, where is the anti-matter? It’s like there’s another law of physics that we haven’t found yet.”

Or maybe the AMS will find something else entirely.

Padley says just look what happened with the Hubble Telescope.

Astronomers thought the orbiting telescope would prove the expansion of the universe was slowing down.

But the Hubble actually showed that the universe is accelerating. It’s blowing apart and that’s still not completely understood.

Padley says the AMS could produce equally tantalizing results.

“The most interesting thing that will happen with the experiment is something we’ll be seeing that nobody was expecting.”

But that’s you get with basic science research. Padley says it’s really the whole point.  

“In the best of worlds it will produce very confusing results and we’ll all bang our heads against the wall and try and figure it out and we’ll have a new understanding of nature at the end.”

From the KUHF Health Science and Technology Desk, I’m Carrie Feibel.

Bio photo of Carrie Feibel

Carrie Feibel

Health & Science Reporter

Carrie Feibel is KUHF's health and science reporter. She comes to Houston Public Radio after ten years as a print reporter...