Endeavour astronauts install $2 billion cosmic ray detector (UPDATED)

Editor's note...
  • Posted at 01:50 AM EDT, 05/19/11: Endeavour astronauts set to install $2 billion cosmic ray detector
  • Updated at 04:10 AM EDT, 05/19/11: AMS pulled from shuttle cargo bay; installation proceeding
  • Updated at 06:50 AM EDT, 05/19/11: AMS attached to station; Ting congratulates shuttle crew
  • CORRECTED at 07:25 AM EDT, 05/19/11: Deleting incorrect electron volt/light bulb conversion
  • Updated at 01:45 PM EDT, 05/19/11: Mission status briefing; Ting says AMS operating flawlessly
Editor's note...
Portions of this status report were written for the CBS News STS-134 mission preview.

CBS News

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL--The Endeavour astronauts installed a $2 billion cosmic ray detector on the International Space Station Thursday, a powerful magnet surrounded by a complex array of sensors that will study high-energy particles from the depths of space and time to look for clues about the formation and evolution of the universe.

"Thank you very much for the great ride and safe delivery of AMS to the station," radioed Sam Ting, the Nobel laureate who has managed the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer project for more than 15 years. "Your support and fantastic work have taken us one step closer to realizing the science potential of AMS. With your help, for the next 20 years, AMS on the station will provide us a better understanding of the origin of the universe."

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, on the end of the space station's robot arm, during a carefully choreographed procedure to install the 7.5-ton instrument on the lab's power truss. (Credit: NASA TV)
"Thank you, Sam," Endeavour commander Mark Kelly replied from the International Space Station. "I was just looking out the window of the orbiter and AMS looks absolutely fantastic on the truss. I know you guys are really excited and you're probably getting data and looking at it already."

Within two or three hours of installation and activation, the AMS was sending down a torrent of data, recording the passage of thousands of cosmic ray particles.

"The detector has 300,000 channels in the electronics, 650 microprocessors and the detectors are aligned to (an accuracy of) one tenth of a human hair," Ting said. "We immediately checked all the detectors, everything functioned properly. Not a single one was broken, not a single electronic channel was malfunctioning. Right away, we began to see an enormous amount of data coming down."

Ting showed off two graphs marking the passage of an electron passing through the instrument with an energy of 20 billion electron volts and a carbon nucleus with an energy of 42 billion electron volts.

"This shows the detector functioned properly without any noticeable deformation whatsoever," he said. "We're very pleased. It took us 17 years to build this thing and (for the) duration of the space station we will be there, hopefully 10 to 20 years, and we hope ... we will be able to make an important contribution to our understanding of the origin of the universe."

Astronauts Andrew Feustel and Roberto Vittori, working on the shuttle's aft flight deck, started the installation operation just before 3 a.m. EDT (GMT-4), using Endeavour's 50-foot-long arm to slowly pull the 7.5-ton Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer from its perch at the back of the orbiter's payload bay.

After moving it to a point over the right side of the shuttle, pilot Gregory Johnson and Gregory "Taz" Chamitoff, operating the station's robot arm from a computer console inside the lab's multi-window cupola module, took over to move AMS into position for attachment on the upper right side of the station's power truss. A motorized claw mechanism in the truss then locked the detector in place on three guide pins just after 5:45 a.m.

A few minutes later,an umbilical assembly for power and data was mated by remote control. No other crew interaction was required and data collection began almost immediately.

"And Houston, from the cupola, I've got some great news," Chamitoff radioed just before 6 a.m. "The UMA mate is complete, AMS is now successfully installed. So huge congratulations to everyone on the AMS team. I'm sure Professor Ting and his group have been holding their breath. You guys can all start breathing again now."

Said Johnson: "It's a great milestone for the hundreds of scientists from 16 countries around he world who have been working on the AMS for more than a decade. It's been our honor to play a small role in this huge undertaking."

"That is just awesome guys," said astronaut Megan McArthur in mission control. "That is great news for scientists, engineers and inquisitive people around the world. Thank you for your skillful work in a very important task. We're just thrilled."

AMS is roughly cube shaped, measuring 15 feet wide, 11 feet tall and 10 feet deep, tipping the scales at 15,251 pounds. Using a powerful magnet to bend the trajectories of high-energy cosmic rays -- charged particles from supernovas, neutron stars, black holes and other cosmic enigmas -- scientists will look for evidence of antimatter and as-yet-undetected dark matter, believed to make up a quarter of the the universe.

Sam Ting, manager of the international Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer project, thanks the Endeavour astronauts for installing the detector on the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA TV)
AMS may even find evidence of strange particles made up of quarks in different arrangements than those found on Earth. Or something completely unexpected.

The AMS "really probes the foundations of modern physics," Ting said before launch. "But to my collaborators and I, the most exciting objective of AMS is to probe the unknown, to search for phenomena which exist in nature but yet we have not the tools or the imagination to find."

Built at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and managed by the U.S. Department of Energy, the $2 billion AMS is an international collaboration between 16 nations, 60 institutes and some 600 physicists. Ting, a soft-spoken Chinese-American physicist who shared the 1976 Nobel Prize in physics, is a tireless advocate.

"The largest accelerator on Earth is 16 miles in circumference, the large Hadron Collider, LHC," he said. "In LHC there are four big experiments. Thousands and thousands of physicists work there trying to understand the beginning of the universe, what is the origin of mass, why different particles have different masses.

"The cost of ISS is about 10 times more than the LHC. The LHC has four experiments. On the space station, to study particle physics, the origin of the universe, (we only have) AMS. And that's why we're very grateful to the United States House of Representatives and the Senate, which passed the resolution to support NASA to have an additional flight to put us in space."

Shuttle commander Mark Kelly, upside down, chats with Sam Ting after installation of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. His crewmates, left to right: Gregory Chamitoff, Michael Fincke, Roberto Vittori, Andrew Feustel and pilot Gregory Johnson. (Credit: NASA TV)
The Large Hadron Collider is capable of generating energies as high as 7 trillion electron volts. To put that in perspective, 1 trillion electron volts is roughly equivalent to the energy of a single flying mosquito. But in particle physics, that energy is concentrated in a single sub-atomic particle and particles from deep space can have energies as high as 100 million trillion electron volts.

"This means that no matter how accelerators are here on Earth, you cannot compete with the cosmos," Ting said.

One of the many mysteries AMS was designed to explore is what happened to the anti-matter that must have been created in the big bang. Scientists believe equal amounts of matter and anti-matter were produced, but a slight imbalance -- or some other factor -- resulted in a universe dominated by normal matter. Or at least a nearby universe made up of normal matter.

"If the universe comes from a big bang, before the big bang it is vacuum," Ting told reporters recently. "Nothing exists in vacuum. So in the beginning, you have (negatively charged) electron, you must have a (positively charged) positron so the charge is balanced. So you have matter, you must have antimatter, otherwise we would not have come from the vacuum.

"So now the universe is 14 billion years old, you have all of us, made out of matter. The question is, where is the universe made out of antimatter? With this experiment, the reason we designed it to such a large size with so many layers of repetitive position detectors is to search for the existence of antimatter to the age of the observable universe, anti-helium, anti-carbon.

"We can distinguish this particle from billions of ordinary particles," he said. "If you think about it, this is not a trivial job. In the city of Houston during the rainy season, you have about 10 billion raindrops per second. If you want to find one that's a different color, it's somewhat difficult. This illustrates the precision this detector is going to achieve."

Dark matter, the mysterious, as-yet-undetected material believed to provide the glue -- gravity -- needed to hold galaxies and clusters of galaxies together, is believed to make up a quarter of the universe compared to the 4 percent made up of the normal matter familiar to human senses. The rest is believed to be in the form of dark energy, a repulsive force that appears to be speeding up the expansion of the universe.

While AMS cannot directly detect dark matter, it can detect the particles that would be produced in dark matter collisions.

AMS also will be on the lookout for so-called "strangelets," sub-atomic particles made up of quarks in different combinations than particles found on Earth. There are six types of quarks -- known as up, down, top, bottom, charm and strange -- but protons and neutrons making up normal matter seen on Earth are made up of just two -- different combinations of up quarks and down quarks.

"The smallest particle are called quarks," Ting said. "We know six quarks exist. But it's very, very strange. All the material on Earth is made up of just two, up and down. We know in the accelerator, six types exist, but on Earth you only see the first two. So the simple question you want to ask is, where's the material made out of three types of quarks? Up, down and strange? It's a very simple question, but a very, very important question."

Whatever AMS discovers, scientists will have plenty of data to work with. Some 25,000 particle detections per second are expected when the instrument is up and running.

"We're gathering data at seven gigabits per second," said Trent Martin, the AMS project manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "We can't send that huge amount of data down through the space station data system, it's just too much.

"So the onboard computers actually go through a process of condensing that data down to just the data that we're truly interested in, compressing it as much as possible. We send down data on average at about six megabits per second, constantly for the entire time that AMS is on. The computers can store up data and we can burst it down at a much higher rate."

Asked to speculate on what AMS might discover, Ting declined, saying "Most physicists who predict the future normally end up regretting it."

"My responsibility and the responsibility of my senior collaborators is to make sure the instrument is correct," he said. "Because the detector is so sensitive, everything we measure is something new. We want to make sure it's done correctly."

After AMS is in place on the station's starboard-three (S3) truss segment, the astronauts will spend the rest of the day preparing for a spacewalk Friday by Chamitoff and Andrew Feustel, the first of four excursions planned for Endeavour's mission. Both astronauts plan to spend the night in the station's Quest airlock module at a reduced pressure of 10.2 pounds per square inch to help purge nitrogen from their bloodstreams and prevent the bends when working in NASA's low-pressure spacesuits.

The primary goals of the first spacewalk are to retrieve a materials science space exposure experiment; to install a replacement; and to hook up ammonia line jumpers to set up a pipeline from an ammonia coolant tank near the center of the power truss to the outboard left-side solar array. During a second spacewalk, ammonia will be pumped into the array reservoir to replace coolant that has been lost due to a slow leak.

The shuttle astronauts will go to bed at 2:26 p.m.

Here is an updated timeline of the crew's planned activities for flight day four (in EDT and mission elapsed time; includes revision C of the NASA television schedule; best viewed with fixed-width font):

10:56 PM...02...14...00...00...STS crew wakeup

01:56 AM...02...17...00...00...Shuttle arm (SRMS) grapples AMS
02:01 AM...02...17...05...00...ISS crew wakeup
02:21 AM...02...17...25...00...SRMS unberths AMS
03:01 AM...02...18...05...00...Station arm (SSRMS) grapples AMS
03:26 AM...02...18...30...00...SRMS ungrapples AMS
03:31 AM...02...18...35...00...ISS daily planning conference
03:41 AM...02...18...45...00...SSRMS moves AMS to attach point
04:31 AM...02...19...35...00...AMS PGSC deactivation
04:41 AM...02...19...45...00...SSRMS installs AMS (stage one)
04:56 AM...02...20...00...00...SSRMS installs AMS (stage two)
05:16 AM...02...20...20...00...EVA-1: Equipment lock preps
05:26 AM...02...20...30...00...AMS umbilical mate
05:41 AM...02...20...45...00...SSRMS releases AMS
06:11 AM...02...21...15...00...PAO event
06:31 AM...02...21...35...00...Crew meals begin
08:01 AM...02...23...05...00...Quick-disconnect familiarization
08:31 AM...02...23...35...00...EVA-1: Tools configured
10:01 AM...03...01...05...00...PAO event
10:21 AM...03...01...25...00...EVA-1: Procedures review
12:30 PM...03...03...34...00...Mission status briefing on NTV
12:51 PM...03...03...55...00...EVA-1: Mask prebreathe/tool config
01:36 PM...03...04...40...00...EVA-1: Airlock depress to 10.2 psi
01:56 PM...03...05...00...00...Garan sleep begins
02:01 PM...03...05...05...00...Soyuz departure preps
02:26 PM...03...05...30...00...STS crew sleep begins
03:01 PM...03...06...05...00...ISS daily planning conference
04:00 PM...03...07...04...00...Mission Management Team briefing on NTV
05:00 PM...03...08...04...00...Daily highlights reel on NTV (repeated hourly)
05:31 PM...03...08...35...00...ISS crew sleep begins
07:45 PM...03...10...49...00...Flight director update on NTV
09:45 PM...03...12...49...00...Flight director update replay on NTV
10:26 PM...03...13...30...00...STS crew/Garan wakeup