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NASA Delivers Major Space Experiment

by Karen Teramura

AMS on ISS

The ISS with the newly installed AMS, a state-of-the-art particle detector constructed, tested, and operated by an international team from 60 institutions in 16 countries, and organized under U.S. Department of Energy sponsorship. Completely operational from Earth, it collects data at a rate of 7 gigabits per second. Data are then filtered and reduced by onboard computers before being sent to the ground for analysis.

K. Teramur and S. Ting

IfA staff member Karen Teramura was invited by Sam Ting to be an official NASA launch guest for Endeavour’s final journey to space. Photo by Dennis Hirota.

On May 16, space shuttle Endeavour began its final mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The 8:56 a.m. Earth-shuddering launch produced powerful sound waves that ignited car alarms as they radiated out from Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39A to surrounding estuaries and waterways. As the waves spread, panicked birds took to the sky and fish leaped from the water, giving viewers an extra thrill minutes after the Endeavour had punched its way through a thick cloud deck.

Three days later, astronauts lifted a 7.5-ton, $2 billion particle and cosmic ray detector, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), from the shuttle’s payload bay and attached it to the space-facing side of the ISS right structural truss. AMS is the largest and most advanced magnetic spectrometer orbiting Earth. It features a large permanent magnet and eight detectors to measure particles’ speed, direction, mass, and charge. It will specifically look for the existence of primordial antimatter, which is believed to be destroyed upon entering Earth’s atmosphere, and dark matter, the unseeable matter that scientists believe makes up to 83 percent of the matter in the Universe. It will also capture data from the more than 10,000 cosmic rays that hit the ISS every minute to pin down their interstellar origin and propagation. The data will be used to analyze the radiation environment in low Earth orbit and provide information needed to determine the protection requirements for future human spaceflight.

“The most exciting objective of AMS is to probe the unknown; to search for phenomena which exist in nature that we have not yet imagined nor had the tools to discover,” said Samuel Ting, AMS lead scientist and pioneer of a new frontier in particle physics research. As AMS collects information about cosmic-ray sources emanating from stars and galaxies millions of light-years beyond the Milky Way, it will expand our understanding of fundamental issues about the origin of the Universe that are common to physics, astrophysics, and cosmology.

Endeavour’s launch came just days after layoff notices went out to 1,900 Kennedy Space Center workers, who will be let go after the July launch of Atlantis, NASA’s final space shuttle flight, which will stock the ISS with supplies.

With the end of NASA’s 30-year shuttle program, folks want to know what NASA has planned for future human space flights. U.S. astronauts have already been included as crewmembers on Russia’s Soyuz trips to the ISS. These will continue while NASA’s Commercial Crew Program gives grants to private companies to develop commercial space flight. NASA is also working with the FAA on the Next Generation  air traffic control system that will allow the FAA to take over space traffic from the Air Force. The FAA Commercial Space Transportation office awarded its first commercial license to permit re-entry from space to a private company, SpaceX, last November for the testing of Dragon, which will deliver cargo to the ISS in 2012.

The FAA has licensed 10 spaceports across the nation. Most recently, Spaceport America in New Mexico dedicated its two-mile-long runway last October. This spaceport will be the hub for Virgin Galactic. Company founder Richard Branson said, “We hope to be offering commercial space flight to the public within the next 12 months. Over 80,000 people have already signed up and are on a waiting list.” Six passengers, each paying $200,000, will train at Spaceport America for three days just prior to their trip. You can book your flight at www.galacticjourneys.com.

Launch of Endeavour

Over 300,000 gallons of water act as sound suppression as it flows through outlets and flame deflectors in the mobile launcher platform. Intense heat from the three main engines and solid rocket boosters creates the billowing steam during launch. Space shuttle Endeavour was built from spare parts after Challenger exploded in 1986. Courtesy NASA. Photo by Tony Gray and Tom Farrar.

Endeavour’s final mission video (58:39 min). Skip to 15:05 for ISS docking; 18:04 for AMS installation; 37:23 for four-man spacewalk; 45:23 for undocking/departure.