When it makes its final launch Friday, NASA's space shuttle Endeavour will carry a piece of equipment that will search space for some of the biggest mysteries of physics -- antimatter and dark matter.
The new space-based research is aimed at one goal: to better understand the origin of the universe.
The Endeavour, which is set to launch at 3:47 p.m. EDT Friday, will carry the AMS-02 (Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer), a particle detector that will be installed and operated on the International Space Station.
From its home on the orbiter, the particle detector is expected to track incoming charged particles, such as protons, electrons and atomic nuclei, according to scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which helped build the detector. By studying these cosmic rays with its highly sensitive monitors, the machine should be able to identify a single particle of antimatter or dark matter among a billion other particles.
"The cosmos is the ultimate laboratory," said Nobel laureate and AMS spokesman Samuel Ting, in a statement. "From its vantage point in space, AMS will explore such issues as antimatter, dark matter and the origin of cosmic rays. However, its most exciting objective is to probe the unknown, because whenever new levels of sensitivities are reached in exploring an uncharted realm, exciting and unimagined discoveries may be expected."
Scientists have long been curious about antimatter. CERN scientists note that matter, the substance known to make up the world, and antimatter, which, in the most basic terms, is identical to matter but with the opposite electrical charge, would have been created in equal amounts when the universe was created. The mystery stems from the fact that we live in a universe that appears to be made only of matter.
Where is the antimatter? There has been much speculation in the scientific world about whether there are places made up of nearly all antimatter -- the opposite of the world that we know.
Scientists hope the AMS project can provide information on dark matter, which is considered to make up about 25% of the total mass of the universe.
"Never in the history of science have we been so aware of our ignorance," said Roberto Battiston, an AMS spokesman, in a statement. "Today we know that we do not know anything about what makes up 95% of our universe."
The AMS particle detector, while overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy, was built and is operated by an international team from 60 institutes in 16 countries.
Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider, the world's most powerful particle accelerator, are also focused on discovering more information about the creation of the universe.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.