Monday, May 16, 2011
The Space Shuttle Endeavour is delivering an Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the International Space Station. What does it do, exactly?
You might think you learned in high school that the universe is made of atoms and molecules, protons and electrons, stars and galaxies, but over the last few decades astronomers have concluded — not happily — that all this is just a scrim overlying a much vaster shadowy realm of invisible “dark matter” whose gravity determines the architecture of the cosmos.
If they are lucky, scientists say, the Alpha spectrometer could confirm that mysterious signals recorded by other satellites and balloons in recent years are emanations from that dark matter, revealing evidence of particles and forces that have only been theoretical dreams until now.
Even if dark matter won’t ever become the ultimate diet — eat it and disappear — knowing what nature is made of could be useful someday in ways nobody can dream. Einstein’s curved spacetime, equally elusive to the senses, proved crucial to the function of GPS devices that were invented decades after Einstein’s death.
Or the device could find even something weirder.