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Karen Andeen | Karlsruhe Institute of Technology |

View Blog | Read Bio

particle physics…in space?

I’m thinking that for the first post on this blog, maybe I should tell you a story.  Fortunately I just picked up a new little snippet about how AMS and NASA first joined forces.

The other night I was sitting here on shift in the AMS control room (called the POCC—Project Operations Control Center…I think).  I was wearing a big warm sweater and trying not to fall asleep, much like I am now (note the dark circles—yep, it’s 5AM!):

Much to my surprise at 2 AM someone walks in the door.  Normally (provided nothing horrible is happening) this place is a ghost town at 2 AM…it’s me and one other person quietly clicking away on our laptops.  So anyway, this guy walks in and I realize he’s one of the NASA guys from Houston whom we have a video conference with every Wednesday at 5PM our time.  Turns out he’s just arrived from the US and is totally jet-lagged.  He couldn’t sleep, so he came to the control room to see what’s going on.  I introduced myself, and he wanted to know how I’d come to be here (since I’m quite new).  Through the chit-chat it comes out that he’s been part of this project from very near the beginning—1994, I think it was.  And he happened to be in the meeting where Sam Ting first brought the idea of AMS to NASA.  Now, I had always assumed that this project was some sort of mutually beneficial agreement from the beginning, but it turns out it wasn’t quite that easy. He said it went like this.

Here they all were at NASA, and in comes Sam Ting (now the AMS spokesperson), and he says: I have this great idea.  I want to build an incredibly precise, amazingly delicate, super awesome particle detector.  (Emphasis on precise and delicate–he was trying to sell it, remember, and in particle physics those attributes are considered a bonus.)  And you guys are going to launch it into space and put it on the station for me.

OK, now I don’t know if you realize this, but if you’ve ever watched videos from the launches or if you ever saw a movie with a space shuttle taking off (Apollo-13 comes to mind ) you’ll know that launching is not a cake walk.  It’s complicated, stuff sometimes goes wrong and, moreover, there is a ton (actually ~2000 tons) of shaking, vibrating, jostling…it might be like your average airplane landing in a hurricane, with hail, times 1000.  Here is how two astronauts described it:

In the space shuttle, astronauts are strapped in on their backs a few hours before launch. As the main engines light, the whole vehicle rumbles and strains to lift off the launch pad. Seven seconds after the main engines light, the solid rocket motors ignite and this feels like a huge kick from behind. The vehicle shakes a lot and the ride is rough for the first two minutes as you are pressed back into your seats with twice your weight. When the solid rocket motors burn out there is a big flash of light as they separate from the big fuel tank the shuttle is strapped to. Then the ride [smooths] out. As you get higher into the thinning atmosphere and burn off most of the fuel, the vehicle accelerates faster and you are pressed back into your seat with three times your weight for the last two and a half minutes of the ride. This two and a half g’s feels like a giant gorilla is sitting on your chest making it more difficult to breathe. Eight and a half total minutes after liftoff, the main engines stop and immediately you go from the being squashed by the gorilla to being weightless.

In the Soyuz (Russian Space Capsule): Shortly before the time of launch you start hearing different noises below you and you know things are getting ready to happen. Then, it is as if a giant beast is waking up. You hear and feel the thumping and bumping of valves opening and closing as engine systems are pressurized. When the first engines light there is a terrific low frequency rumbling and things start to shake. Then the main engine lights and the rumbling and shaking get even louder. Slowly, slowly you begin to move up and away from the launch pad. But, very quickly you build up speed and the g-load, or the force of gravity or acceleration on a body, increases. You shake and rattle along and then there is a bang when the rescue system is jettisoned, another bang when the four strap on boosters separate, and another bang when the nose faring comes off. Now the windows are uncovered and you can see light coming in. At the second stage separation there is another bang and the g-load drops immediately. You go from about four and a half g’s down to about one and a half or two g’s. Then the third stage engine lights; you have a big push forward and the g-load builds again.  Eight and a half minutes after launch there is a loud bang and jerk and the last section of the rocket is jettisoned from the Soyuz spacecraft. And just like that, you are there–in space. It feels like you are hanging upside down in your shoulder harness. This is simply because there is nothing pushing you back into your seat anymore. Everything floats, including you.

So now Professor Ting wants to take this extremely precise and delicate (and also quite expensive) equipment…and launch it?

And that’s just getting there.  Once you’re there, you have to deal with changing conditions all the time.  The most shocking example is the temperature: if there were no temperature control, the difference between the sunny side to the dark side of the station would be up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit!  (Remember, space itself is cold, but the sun without any atmosphere for shielding—super hot!  (You can read about how they keep the astronauts from becoming fried eggs.)  Particle detectors do not like temperature changes.  Any temperature changes.  At all.  500 degrees?!?!?

Not surprisingly, the NASA folks thought this idea was nuts (to put it politely).

But somehow, throughout history, the best physics ideas have always sounded crazy, so keep this in mind next time some poor physicist comes begging for money or attention, sporting a big ego and bartering an idea that sounds “impractical”, “unfeasible” or just downright “impossible”.  Be careful, because if you tell that person what you think of their idea, you may very well find yourself eating your words.

Fortunately, NASA clearly has some experience dealing with bizarre-o ideas.  They played it well…here they were, thinking this project was absolutely crazy, never going to work.  But, you can’t very well tell someone who’s got a Nobel Prize in Physics that you think their idea is…well, not quite what you might call…possible.  So they told him he’d have to build his detector within all kinds of really stringent (but 100% necessary) specifications, and if he managed to do this, then maybe…if the money worked out…they would consider launching it.  He said OK and, somehow, after 19 years of sleepless nights and days spent arguing and sweating for an idea that everyone thought was impractical, unfeasible and just downright impossible, the dream has been accomplished: we’re up and running…in space.

Hello world, this is AMS, reporting for duty.

(I just bet Sam Ting goes to sleep with a little smirk on his face every night:  Ha, told you so.)

So there you have it.  If you want a good story, go sit in a control room.  Control rooms may look awesome with all the flashing lights and monitors, but they tend to be rather dull places (that is, until something horrible happens and panic ensues).  This means that people have time to kill and out come the old stories.  (Seriously, who needs a campfire anymore when you’ve got a control room?)  I think it’s important to capture these stories—the stories of how the great experiments came to be, the trials and tribulations of the generations before…they remind us that science is more than just a numbers game—we are, all of us, human, and subject to all of the follies and foibles that that implies.

Let me leave you with my favorite NASA video, which I think is a good reminder of our humanity—especially if you notice how thin the atmosphere really is!