A giant magnet with 3,000 times the pulling power of the Earth's magnetic field made its way into space on the space shuttle Endeavour.
The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) has been 17 years in the making and will be used to measure particles as they zoom through space and the magnet itself.
Roberto Battiston, a physicist at the University of Perugia in Italy and the deputy spokesman for the AMS mission, compares the universe to an earthly particle accelerator.
In an interview with CBC's Quirks & Quarks, he said the universe "…can accelerate a very tiny fraction of the particles which are around to extremely high energy — hundreds of millions of times higher than the energy we can get from an accelerator."
The AMS is now mounted on the International Space Station and will be able to take full advantage of the universe's particle acceleration and near-vacuum state. Researchers will finally be able to look at the make-up of cosmic rays without the interference of the Earth's atmosphere filtering and slowing down particles.
Scientists are hoping to find evidence of anti-matter included within the cosmic rays.
Battiston says that elements heavier than helium can only come from star fusion. So, if the AMS is able to intercept even one anti-helium particle, researchers would know for certain that it came from a distant "anti-star" or perhaps even an entire anti-matter galaxy.
"This is the real grail that we are looking for, if we can get an anti-nuclei of helium or heavier than that," Battiston said. "That would be extremely interesting. It would tell us somewhere there are anti-stars at work."
Roberto Battiston is the deputy spokesman, not the spokesman for the mission. The mission spokesman is Samuel C.C. Ting.Jun 08, 2011 11:00 AM ET