No small matter

A persevering physicist is well an his way to uncovering the enigma of antimatter

Published: Tuesday 31 October 1995

DOES our universe have antimatter (the oppositely charged counterpart of ordinary matter) in substantial quantities? Do we have whole galaxies made up of antimatter, much like our own galaxy which is made up of matter? These are some of the brainteasers which could be closer to a solution if Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Samuel C Ting's efforts to finance and develop the Alpha Magnetic Spectro- Meter (AMS) bear fruit (Science, Vol 269, August 18,1995).

Antimatter is routinely created and studied in the laboratory, but it has rarely been observed in nature, Cosmic sources of antimatter are hard to detect because optical telescopes cannot distinguish them from ordinary matter sources.

However, scientists have de mined that there are no antinu sources within 30 million light yew our solar system. Nevertheless, a antiprotons have been observed ini loon experiments which have recol cosmic rays at heights of 40 km. reason for the paucity of data is magnetic field of the earth which m it harder to spot these charged particles.

Now Ting plans to conduct an experiment on a space shuttle. Orbiting at 300 km, it will be beyond the earth's magnetic field and hence eminently suited for observing these particles. If the shuttle experiment is successhd. AMS will be put on a space station b)year 2001.

The strategy to observe these particles simple: using a huge I meter ve mmpet@ the charges of antiparticles passing through the core of the po am be measured. The hitch is dw rn-gnet will be made of rare h aL@ents which are available in mL 1U makes the project some-what i sommin. The political implications Pefthe Chinese connection make it h* that the project will be funded soon, given the current state of relations between the China and the us.

But Ting's tenacity is legendary. A Nobel laureate in 1976 for his discovery of the Jlpsi particle, Chinese-born Ting is reported to be already talking to the Russians and considering placing the 6- tonne AMS on Mir, the Russian space station. If the project succeeds, it win open up a completely new window onto the cosmos.

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