Quest for the Dark Heart of the Universe

Projected density plot of a redshift z=2.5 dar...

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Located in a clean room at the Kennedy Space Center in preparation for a February launching, is an eight-ton assemblage of magnets, wires, and other electronic components; one of the most ambitious and complicated experiments ever to set out for space.

Scientists hope that the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer will lend important insights into what makes up the universe. In late February or early March, the space shuttle Endeavour will ferry the spectrometer to a permanent berth on the International Space Station (ISS).

But the real destination is the shadow universe. The device is designed to sift the high-energy particles flying through space known as cosmic rays. The experiment, if it succeeds, could help NASA take a giant step toward answering the question of what the universe is made of.

It could also confer scientific glory on both the International Space Station and a celebrated physicist reaching one last time, literally, for the stars. If it fails, it will validate critics who think it a scandal the experiment was ever approved.

You might think you learned in high school that the universe is made of atoms and molecules, protons and electrons, stars and galaxies, but over the last few decades astronomers have concluded (not happily) that all this is just a scrim overlying a much vaster shadowy realm of invisible “dark matter” whose gravity determines the architecture of the cosmos.

If they are lucky, scientists say, the Alpha spectrometer could confirm that mysterious signals recorded by other satellites and balloons in recent years are emanations from that dark matter, revealing evidence of particles and forces that have only been theoretical dreams until now. Knowing what nature is made of could be useful someday in ways nobody can dream. Einstein’s curved space-time, equally elusive to the senses, proved crucial to the function of GPS devices that were invented decades after Einstein’s death.

Learning Activity

Assign students to write a report of at least 150 words or a presentation of at least seven slides. Students should cite at least three resources and use the pathfinder listed below to save time and find the most relevant resources.

Students should address the essential questions (you can add or substitute others) below:

  • What is anti-matter and how is it related to dark matter?
  • Why is it important for scientists to hunt for dark matter?
  • What are some practical applications of the knowledge of dark matter and anti-matter?
  • What science is behind the tools that will hunt for anti-matter?


Using Science in Context:

1: Type “Dark Matter” in the Search box

2: Type “Antimatter” in Search box


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