COLLEGE STATION --
Collecting dust at a warehouse in Switzerland is a piece of space junk that Texas A&M University physicist Peter McIntyre
and his team worked on for three years. Though the magnet never left Earth -- the casualty of a NASA policy change -- McIntyre's effort helped make him one of many co-authors on a key paper released this week by Nobel laureate Samuel Ting about the search for dark matter.
The research, presented today (Wednesday, Apr. 3) by Ting at CERN
and to be published in the journal Physical Review Letters
, indicates scientists may be a step closer to understanding dark matter, the mysterious substance that makes up nearly a quarter of the universe. The instrument responsible for the science is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS)
, a $1.5 billion particle physics experiment that hitched a ride aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2011 en route to the International Space Station
, where for the past two years it has been scanning the cosmos for charged particles with more sensitivity than ever before and is now opening up a new window to the universe.
Ting, who is the lead researcher on the AMS experiment, called McIntyre about five years ago for help on the superconducting magnet that would form the core of the experiment. McIntyre provided key technical support, including sending a member of his team to England, packaging the magnet into its cryostat, and executing a key safety test at Texas A&M after a safety device designed to relieve liquid helium pressure to keep the magnet cool failed.
Although the magnet was a technical success, it ultimately was grounded because NASA decided that the space station, which was originally intended to remain active only until 2015, would instead operate through at least 2020. The problem for the AMS experiment was that its superconducting magnet could only remain cold and operating in orbit for the foreseen three-year lifespan. The researchers had to revert to a permanent magnet that had a third of the magnetic field strength but an unlimited lifespan.
"The collaboration reached the reluctant decision -- but I think the correct one -- that the right thing to do would be to revert to the permanent magnet, which had already flown on a maiden voyage 10 years before on the space shuttle," said McIntyre, a professor since 1980 in the Department of Physics and Astronomy
and the inaugural holder of the Mitchell-Heep Chair in Experimental High-Energy Physics within the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy
While it was frustrating to see three years' work put on the shelf, McIntyre said such changes are more the rule than the exception when doing science in space. Once an experiment is designed, scientists have to pull together funding, seek concurrence from all stakeholders and build the experiment in a way that is "space rugged" to ensure its capability to withstand the shocks of the ride up, the wide temperature swings and both radiation and vacuum environments. The whole process can take a decade or more, McIntyre said. Meanwhile, changes in NASA priorities, funding and policy ground often shifts.
"If you look at the history of recent space missions, just about as many get canceled as go up and are successful," McIntyre said. "What would be most painful would have been spending 10 or 20 years of your life developing an experiment that never flies. That has happened to a fair number of space research missions. The entire AMS experiment was facing the same fate, but a long and harsh battle to restore it back onto the shuttle launch agenda was won because of the persistence of Sam Ting."
Though he has not been involved in the science of AMS since its launch, McIntyre said he's grateful to have been a part of making the experiment a success and proud to be a co-author in the results announced today.
"If I had to do it again," McIntyre said, "I would jump at it in a New York minute."
For more information about McIntyre and his research, visit http://mitchell.tamu.edu/people/peter-mcintyre/
to learn more about today's AMS announcement.
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