- The space shuttle Endeavour lifts off on April 29 for its final mission: to deliver a $1.5 billion cosmic-ray detector to the International Space Station.
- Designed to measure highly energetic particles through whizz through space, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer will look for signs of dark matter and galaxies made of antimatter.
- The instrument is the first with the ability to measure all the key properties of a particle and thereby discriminate mundane particles such as protons from more exotic ones such as antielectrons.
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The world’s most advanced cosmic-ray detector took 16 years and $2 billion to build, and not long ago it looked as though it would wind up mothballed in some warehouse. NASA, directed to finish building the space station and retire the space shuttle by the end of 2010, said it simply did not have room in its schedule to launch the instrument anymore. Saving it took a lobbying campaign by physicists and intervention by Congress to extend the shuttle program. And so the shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to take off on April 19 for the express purpose of delivering the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the International Space Station.
Cosmic rays are subatomic particles and atomic nuclei that zip and zap through space, coming from ordinary stars, supernovae explosions, neutron stars, black holes and who knows what—the last category naturally being of greatest interest and the main impetus for a brand-new instrument. Dark matter is one of those possible mystery sources. Clumps of the stuff out in space might occasionally release blazes of particles that would set the detectors alight. Some physicists also speculate that our planet might be peppered with the odd antiatom coming from distant galaxies made not of matter but of its evil antitwin.