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Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer Team Publishes First Findings

Published by Klaus Schmidt on Wed Apr 3, 2013 3:35 pm via: NASA
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Imagine that since the beginning of time as we know it, we have compiled an anthill of information about the kinds of charged particles that shoot around the universe – charged cosmic rays. Next, imagine that just two short years later, we have amassed an Everest-sized mountain of such information.

That’s exactly what the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) has been able to do, using the power and data transmission capabilities of the International Space Station. It is in orbit, circling Earth and sifting through matter, antimatter and other particles that are yet to be confirmed, 365 days a year. And now scientists are beginning to sift through that mountain of data and figure out how it may change our concept of the cosmos.

AMS On-Orbit Photo

AMS On-Orbit Photo

AMS does that by recording the number of particles that pass through its collectors, details on the kinds of particles, such as protons and electrons, physical information such as particle charge, mass and velocity, and information on which direction they came from so that scientists can attempt to track down their source. Each one of these is called a particle event. Since its activation on the space station on May 19, 2011, AMS has collected detailed information on more than 31 billion particle events, and downlinked this data for analyses by AMS collaboration scientists on Earth. In its first six months of operation on the station, AMS had accumulated more data on charged cosmic rays than had been previously collected in the history of human physics studies. And AMS continues to gather data on about 1.4 billion particle events every month.

To do this, the 15,251-pound AMS and its eight primary science instrument systems use 300,000 data channels. The instruments are similar to those used in terrestrial particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) outside of Geneva, Switzerland,. The primary difference is that the AMS science instrument systems were miniaturized and ruggedized for launch on the shuttle and operation on the space station.

Every day, AMS is operated from the ground by two full shifts and one partial shift at the AMS Payload Operations Control Center (POCC) at CERN. The other partial shift each day is run from the AMS Asia POCC at the Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology in Taiwan. The AMS data is downlinked using the space station’s high-rate data system, the same one that is used to send down television of astronauts living and working on the station. The data is sent from the station to NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellites, which relay it to the satellite reception dishes at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico.

From there, the data goes to NASA’s Payload Operations Integration Center at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and then on to the AMS Payload Operations Control Center in Switzerland. The data comes down at between 9 and 50 megabits a second, depending on the needs of the other 200 experiments also going on aboard the station. The data is stored in buffers on AMS until it can be downlinked. At this rate, AMS generates approximately 140 gigabytes per day, which is about the size of a smaller home computer hard drive, or 51.3 terabytes a year.

The space station’s solar arrays generate the electricity used by AMS, and provide up to 1,780 watts of continuous power. That’s a little more electricity than a median household on Earth uses continuously when averaged over time.

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