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Dark Matter Experiment on ISS to Announce First Results

First Posted: Feb 18, 2013 09:38 PM EST

One of the most exciting, and with $1.5 billion also most expensive experiments aboard the International Space Station, is poised to be put into the spotlight in two weeks, when the first comprehensive paper with results about the hunt for dark matter will be published. The leading scientist of the space-based particle physics experiment, MIT physicist Samuel Ting, announced on Monday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that their new paper would appear soon and contain big news on the (dark) matter.

Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer AMS-02 on ISS dark matter detector
(Photo : NASA)
The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer AMS-02 is seen installed on the ISS's upper-left side, where it is collecting evidence for dark matter since 2011. The device has to be installed on the ISS because of its considerable power requirements - which are provided by the massive photovoltaic panels of the Space Station, right behind the detector.
The particle collector, called Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, cannot detect the invisible dark matter directly. Instead, it uses a powerful magnet to measure and distinguish between whatever matter and antimatter comes from deep space in the form of cosmic rays.

Since AMS was installed on the space station in May 2011 it has registered some 25 billion cosmic ray particles, Dr. Ting says. Of those, some 7.7 million are electrons or positrons (the electron’s antimatter counterpart). It is the ratio between the two that may ultimately reveal something about dark matter.

A first prototype of the system was actually tested in space in 1998, and after that Ting began the development of the full research system designated AMS-02. This development effort involved the work of 500 scientists from 56 institutions and 16 countries.

The instrument which eventually resulted from this evolutionary process is "the most sophisticated particle detector ever sent into space", rivaling very large detectors used at major particle accelerators, and it has cost four times as much as any of its ground-based counterparts.

According to some physics theories, dark matter is made up of something called WIMPS, or weakly interacting massive particles, which is a class of particles that are their own antimatter partner particles. When matter and antimatter particles meet, they annihilate each other. If two WIMPs collided, they would be destroyed and would then release a pair of daughter particles - an electron and its antimater counterpart.

While Dr. Ting stubbornly refused to reveal any details of the paper on the news conference, the first paper will obviously report how many of each of the particles were found, and what their energies are.

Generally, scientists expect the question of dark matter's origin to become clearer soon. The AMS will contribute, but so will the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and various underground dark matter detectors buried around the world.

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