ISS Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer Produces Tantalizing Results

Hunting for Dark MatterCredit  : NASA

Hunting for Dark Matter
Credit : NASA

NASA yesterday hosted a teleconference to discuss the first published results to come from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an audacious and expensive research instrument located on the outside of the International Space Station.  The goal of AMS, which was brought up on Endeavor’s final flight, is to use powerful magnetic fields to funnel incoming solar particles for analysis and classification.  Its modest goal is to determine with never before gained precision, just what the universe is made of.

AMS is the third component of a three part approach to answering  this question, the other two being the Large Hadron Particle Collider at CERN, located near Geneva, Switzerland and a network of instruments located deep under the Earth.   CERN studies what happens when particles are slammed together at relativistic speeds, and the underground network studies high energy particles which make it through the atmosphere and hundreds to thousands of feet of Earth on their way straight through the planet and into infinity. AMS by contrast, is designed to analyze and quantify those particles as they are found in space,  before they might otherwise be absorbed by Earth’s protective layers.

So what of the results?  The goal in this case was to search for evidence of dark matter, the elusive but so far unproven element that current theory predicts makes up most of the bulk of the universe. It does so by looking for an excess of positrons, the anti-matter counterpart to the electron.   According to current theory,  positrons should occur as the result of collisions between particles of dark matter occurring all around us, and significantly, should all contain approximately the same energy.  The problem is that pulsars also throw off excess positrons,  but with the distinction that they all come from the same direction, that of the pulsar. Evidence of dark matter by contrast, should come from a multitude of directions, all over in fact, and that is precisely what these first findings seem to suggest. The AMS instrument has not operated long enough however, to allow for a statistically significant assessment of positrons above a certain energy level,  which might shed light on the predicted “drop off” of particles which would be a signature of dark matter. During the presentation CERN principle investigator Samuel Ting went to some length to assert that while the results are not definitive, but they are encouraging.

On a general note, the Alpha Magnetic Sspectrometer is another example, much like the accelerating pace of research being conducted by CASIS, that the International Space Station is finally beginning to come into its own as an unparalleled platform for research.  This link, to the NASA.Gov report on the AMS-2 findings gives a good insight into how the station is serving as the ideal host platform for AMS, and the impressive team of researchers working behind it.

While this is the stuff of dreams for physicists, there is something in AMS for the run of the mill space enthusiast and sci-fi fan as well.  Besides searching for evidence of dark matter, AMS is also looking for evidence of the overall distribution of anti-matter in the universe. A small step to be sure, but we all know what fuels a warp core reactor now don’t we?

Posted in: NASA, Space Science

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