Antimatter detector on last shuttle
Geneva - The US Air Force took charge Wednesday of a $2bn antimatter detector destined to catch the last scheduled space shuttle flight in February 2011.
Airmen loaded the giant Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer into a C-5M Super Galaxy plane at Geneva airport for take off to Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on Thursday.
The military planes are normally used to fly tanks and helicopters around the world, but scientists at the European Centre for Nuclear Research, or Cern, had to ask the US Air Force to help them out when they found the 7.5 ton device wouldn't fit into a 747 jumbo jet.
Sam Ting, a Nobel laureate and professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer would be docked to the International Space Station to collect evidence of antimatter, dark matter and other phenomena over the next 20 years.
The AMS detector will complement Cern's Large Hadron Collider, a massive atom smasher deep beneath the Swiss-French border that scientists are using to simulate conditions similar to those just after the Big Bang in the hope of better understanding the make up of the universe.
Antimatter, which the device was primarily designed to find, is sometimes referred to as the evil twin of ordinary matter and scientists believe the Big Bang created both in equal amounts - meaning that, in theory, there should be an identical universe to ours out there made entirely of antimatter.
But so far scientists have been unable to detect antimatter except in the lab. By searching outside the protective shell of Earth's atmosphere they hope to find solid proof of the elusive particle's existence - or reasons for its absence.
The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which took about 15 years to build and was part-funded by the US Department of Energy, will be one of two payloads carried to the space station on Endeavour STS-134, Nasa's last shuttle mission scheduled for February 26 2011.
Separately, Cern staff protested on Wednesday against proposed cuts to their next five-year budget, saying this could "dangerously compromise the running of the organisation" they say helped develop scientific breakthroughs such as medical scanners, computer grids and the World Wide Web.
Member states have pressed Cern to sharply reduce its $4.87bn budget for the period from 2011 to 2015.
The organisation recently offered to cut back its funding demands by about $467m - a move that will require the $10bn Large Hadron Collider to be switched off for all of 2012.
The AMS detector was funded separately and wouldn't be affected by any cuts that might be agreed when the organisation's finance committee meets September 16, said Cern spokesperson James Gillies.