What may end up being the crown jewel of the International Space Station — and at a cost of $2 billion its most expensive bauble — landed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday to begin preparations for launch on the last shuttle mission in February.
On-hand to witness the arrival of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a 15,000-pound particle detector designed to probe high-energy cosmic rays for clues about how the universe formed, was project leader Samuel Ting, a Nobel laureate and MIT physicist who turns out to have a pretty sharp head for diplomacy and politics.
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Organizing and coordinating a team of scientists, engineers and technicians from 56 agencies, research organizations and universities in 16 countries — including China AND Taiwan — was tough enough. But when AMS was booted off the shuttle in the wake
of the 2003 Columbia accident, Ting launched a lobbying campaign to win funding
and support for an extra shuttle flight to get AMS to the station. Then, he got
NASA to agree to delay the launch so that AMS could be outfitted with a
AMS had been designed with a superconducting magnet that had enough liquid helium coolant to last about three years. With the shuttle flights ending, however, there would be no way to return AMS to Earth for servicing and possible return to the station. Another factor in swapping out the magnet was the growing, near-unanimous support by Congress and the Obama administration to continue funding the space station beyond 2015.
“The end of last year we learned that space station will go to 2020 and maybe even go to 2028, so after three years, if we don’t change (the magnet) AMS would become a museum piece,” Ting told reporters gathered at the shuttle’s landing strip just before an Air Force C-5 cargo plane touched down with AMS aboard.
“I’m very pleased to be here,” Ting said. “It took us almost 15 years to get here.”
Joining Ting and about a dozen other scientists and program managers at Kennedy Space Center for AMS’s arrival were the seven astronauts assigned who will fly with the detector aboard shuttle Endeavour in February. AMS, which was assembled and tested at
CERN in Geneva, is expected to be attached to the outside of the station’s truss
using the shuttle and station’s robot arms.
“Sam, I give you our guarantee we’re not going to break it,” Endeavour commander Mark Kelly told Ting. “It will get installed on the truss and hopefully be working
before we depart.”
From its vantage point above Earth’s atmosphere, AMS is
designed to track high-energy cosmic rays and determine the properties of their
subatomic particles, a research effort, which if successful, could uncover
antimatter or unravel the mystery of dark matter, which is believed to fill 90 percent our our universe.
“At the moment there was a big bang, there must be equal amounts of matter and antimatter,” Ting said. “Now antimatter has been found in accelerators. The question is, is there a universe far, far, far away made out of antimatter? That is one example. The second example is we know 90 percent of the matter in the universe we cannot see. We know it exists… This experiment will provide the most sensitive search for the dark
“When you build a new instrument you ask the best physicists to make a judgment, but physicists make a judgment based on existing knowledge. Discovery is to break down existing knowledge, so when you enter into new territory with a precision instrument it’s very difficult to say what you will see,” Ting said.
“The science potential for AMS is just incredible,” added NASA AMS program manager Mark Sistilli. “In a very, very real sense, AMS could open up a whole new chapter in exploration of the galaxy and beyond.”
(Top: Nearly 15 years in the making and with a price tag topping $2 billion, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer arrives at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for launch preparations. Right: AMS principal investigator Samuel Ting talks with reporters. Credit: NASA.)