Particle hunter on space station may have found dark matter

Physicists get clue to mysterious matter that may makes up a fourth of the universe

A $2 billion device attached to the outside of the International Space Station has found particles that could be the building blocks of dark matter.

CERN, also known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research, reported today that it is collecting and analyzing data that could offer the first glimpse of dark matter -- mysterious and so-far elusive matter that is thought to make up a quarter of the universe.

Scientists know that dark matter, which neither emits nor absorbs light, is there because of its gravitational influence on the rest of the universe. Beyond that, they know little about what it is.

If scientists can understand dark matter, it could offer valuable clues as to how the Milky Way will evolve and whether the universe will stop expanding at some point or if it will expand until it collapses.

"Over the coming months, [the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer ] will be able to tell us conclusively whether these positrons are a signal for dark matter, or whether they have some other origin," said MIT's Nobel-winning physicist Samuel Ting, who leads the team studying the data.

Ting expects the scientists to be able to identify the newly found particles within a few months.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, or AMS, went into space in May 2011 on board the space shuttle Endeavour. The 15,251-pound particle detector was attached to the backbone of the station.

The device has been orbiting the Earth with the space station ever since, sifting through cosmic particles for data to help scientists answer fundamental questions of physics related to antimatter and dark matter.

The main goal of the research is to understand the origin of the universe and what makes it up.

The particle detector is made up of a ring of powerful magnets and ultra-psensitive detectors built to track, though not capture, cosmic rays. It will be operated remotely from Earth.

By studying these cosmic rays with its highly sensitive monitors, the AMS should be able to identify a single particle of antimatter or dark matter among a billion other particles.

The experiment is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

CERN, which runs the Large Hadron Collider, has become a major player in the physics world. The collider, which now is shut down for a two-year-long upgrade, has found a particle that scientists are nearly sure is the elusive Higgs boson.

The Higgs boson, which is believed to give everything in the universe weight, could be a key component of everything from humans to stars and planets, as well as everything in the universe that is invisible.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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