Friday, February 04, 2011

Mark Kelly, STS-134 and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer

[The crew of STS-134 with commander Mark Kelly in the bottom Center. Photo credit: NASA.]


The announcement came from NASA today that Mark Kelly will indeed be commander of the last scheduled Space Shuttle mission, STS-134.There was some doubt about whether or not Kelly would be able to continue training for NASA's final shuttle mission after his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, was shot and critically injured during the 2011 Tucson Shootings on Jan. 8.

Kelly has been on leave from the rigorous pre-launch training schedule for the last few weeks to take care of his wife.

"I am looking forward to rejoining my STS-134 crew members and finishing our training for the mission," Kelly said in the NASA press release. "We have been preparing for more than 18 months, and we will be ready to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the International Space Station and complete the other objectives of the flight. I appreciate the confidence that my NASA management has in me and the rest of my space shuttle crew."
[Endeavour in May, 2005.]
The AMS is a particle physics detector that will search for antimatter and dark matter and measure cosmic rays from space. (A particle detector detects and tracks high-energy particles made during nuclear decay, coming from cosmic radiation or made in particle accelerators.)

NASA's fact sheet on the AMS and its mission explains the need for the space-bound spectrometer:
"Experimental evidence indicates that our Galaxy is made of matter; however, there are more than 100 hundred million galaxies in the universe and the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe requires equal amounts of matter and antimatter. Theories that explain this apparent asymmetry violate other measurements. Whether or not there is significant antimatter is one of the fundamental questions of the origin and nature of the universe."
The AMS uses a large magnet to make a strong magnetic field that is used to bend the path of charged particles coming from space as they go through several detectors. The detectors measure the particles' speed, charge and velocity among other things.

When the AMS is up and running -- which it will be all day, every day unless power is cut from the ISS -- it will be measuring enough data to fill up a 1 Gigabyte USB drive every second. (The data will be filtered and condensed before it's sent back to Earth.)

The AMS' operators hope to use it to take cosmic measurements for at least three full years. Getting good data about cosmic radiation, including how much is blasted across space and where it's coming from, will be essential if we ever want to send astronauts on long-journey missions, like to Mars and beyond. After three years, the AMS scientists hope to have learned enough about cosmic radiation to understand what humans will need to be protected from should they travel to Mars.

[The AMS being tested in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo credit: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA., NASA.]

The 134th Space Shuttle launch is currently scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral on April 19. The crew will mount the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the International Space Station (ISS) during a spacewalk on the 14-day mission aboard Endeavour.

PhysicsBuzz wishes good luck to Astronaut Kelly as he returns to training and a smooth recovery to Congresswoman Giffords.

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