London: Astronomers involved in the largest-ever experiment in space have reported the collection of some 18 billion “cosmic ray” events that may help unravel the Universe’s mysteries.
The huge number of events seen by the experiment includes some of the highest-energy particles from the cosmos that we have ever seen.
Run from a centre at Cern, Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) – aims to spot mysterious dark matter that makes up most of the mass of our Universe.
The astronauts who installed it on the space station in 2011 believe that the AMS should be able to spot the results of collisions of the mysterious dark matter, catch completely new forms of matter that include the aptly named “strange” quark, or resolve why the Universe we see is made mostly of matter rather than antimatter.
“When we installed AMS, that was the last piece of the ISS, then the space station was complete. This is really the pinnacle of the science that ISS will do, in my opinion the most significant experiment we have on board,” Mission commander Mark Kelly told reporters.
In its 14 months of operation, the AMS has logged some 18 billion cosmic rays - more than collected in a century of looking before now.
But the AMS is a one-of-a-kind machine, so it has taken some time just to understand what it is seeing hundreds of times per second - and the team has only analysed a few percent of the data.
Nobel laureate Sam Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has led the project since its inception some 17 years ago, through a number of setbacks and budget concerns that nearly saw the project shelved altogether - until an act of the US Congress and an unscheduled shuttle mission put it in space.
The team has already noted an excess of extremely high-energy positrons - the antimatter equivalent of electrons - and atomic nuclei at 9 teraelectronvolts (TeV) - higher even than the LHC can produce.
But Prof Ting is interested most of all in careful, methodical work, and is in no hurry to formally announce any findings.
“I have told my collaborators that in the next 40-50 years it is very unlikely people will be so foolish as to repeat this experiment, given the difficulty I ran into,” Prof Ting told BBC News.
“Therefore it’s extremely important when we publish a result, we publish it correctly, because otherwise you’ll certainly mislead physics and there’s no way to check us,” he said.