NASA readies to launch the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer

This week on A Lab Aloft, guest bloggers Trent Martin and Ken Bollweg share their recollections of working on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and their excitement as the investigation ramps up to launch on STS-134, scheduled for May 16, 2011.

With the launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour STS-134 mission, the hopes and dreams of over 600 physicists, engineers and technicians from 60 institutes in 16 different nations will be carried to International Space Station. The flight is poised to take the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer – 02 or AMS-02 to its final perch on the top of the space station, where it will finally begin its much anticipated operations.

The AMS-02 is a high energy physics experiment that employs a large magnet—which produces a strong, uniform magnetic field—combined with a state of the art precision spectrometer to search for antimatter, dark matter, and to understand cosmic ray propagation in the universe. The large international team working on this project is led by Nobel laureate Professor Samuel Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The payload is sponsored by the United States Department of Energy, but funding comes from all over the world. This type of international collaboration is common in the world of high energy physics research for the last 50 years and is starting to become more common in the space science community. To date, AMS is the most diversely funded space-based science detector ever built. This is the type of collaboration that NASA hopes the space station National Laboratory will help continue to foster in the space scientific community.

Development of AMS was required to follow NASA standards for flight and ground safety and NASA retained the right to veto anything that violated those requirements. The AMS Collaboration has official responsibility for mission assurance though all the experiment hardware and software were developed to accommodate NASA recommendations for compatibility, reliability, and redundancy.

The successful precursor flight of AMS-01 on STS-91 took place with the last Shuttle-Mir mission in June 1998. There were some communications issues, due to a failed Ku-Band antenna, but the AMS detector performed as expected. The prototype engineering evaluation flight led to improved sensitivity of the measurement of antihelium and helium flux ratio by one part per million and AMS is expected to improve this to one part per billion.

View from Mir of AMS-01 and SpaceHab on STS-91
in June 1998.
(Image courtesy of NASA)

Work on a much more complex version of AMS began immediately after the completion of the STS-91 mission. With numerous increases in size, mass, and interfaces, the need for a second Unique Support Structure or USS-02 became apparent. The versatility of the new carrier was proven as the final payload weight increased from 9,197 to 15,251 lb. The first major upgrade was to change from a permanent version to a more powerful cryogenic superconducting superfluid helium-cooled magnet. Hundreds of internal and external interface, manufacturing, testing, and assembly problems were solved on the way to delivering the cryogenic magnet to the AMS Collaboration.

AMS integrated with the USS-02 and Vacuum Case in
the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at KSC,
March 2011.
(Image courtesy of NASA)

The complexity of the experiment and its interfaces continued to increase as the number of data channels grew from ~70,000 on AMS-01 to over 300,000 on AMS-02.  The tremendous amount of data the experiment is expected to produce required detailed command and data interface coordination with the space shuttle and station. When the decision was made to extend the life of the ISS, the AMS Collaboration decided it would benefit the experiment to use the infinite life of the original Permanent Magnet instead of the limited life of the Cryogenic Magnet. 

Of course, without the space shuttle there would be no way of getting AMS to the space. The shuttle, which will retire this year, provides the gentlest ride to space of any manned or unmanned launch system ever developed. What’s more, without the space station, there would be no location for operations. The station solar arrays make the station the only currently available resource platform capable of generating enough energy to power the AMS and successfully run the investigation.

The ISS National Laboratory is just beginning to realize its potential as a research facility and the AMS investigation will play a significant role in helping to achieve this goal. The station provides guidance, navigation, and attitude control for the experiment. It also provides power, command, and data systems to control the experiment and to relay its data to the ground. NASA provides the tracking relay data satellites, ground stations, and control centers to transfer the commands and data to/from the AMS Payload Operations Control Centers at Johnson Space Center and at CERN.

AMS (foreground) as it will appear when attached to the International
Space Station National Laboratory.
(Image courtesy of NASA)

AMS-02 Ready for Launch in Endeavour’s Payload Bay April 2011.
(Image courtesy of M. Famiglietti)

Although the primary purpose of the AMS-02 payload is to search for antimatter and dark matter, the detector represents the most advanced charge particle detector ever flown in space. In the words of Prof. Ting, “The issues of antimatter in the universe and the origin of Dark Matter probe the foundations of modern physics,” but more importantly “the most exciting objective of AMS is to probe the unknown; to search for phenomena which exist in nature that we have not yet imagined nor had the tools to discover.” With AMS-02, we may now have those tools.

It has been an honor to work with the AMS Collaboration and Nobel prize winner, Professor Ting. I look forward to the launch of this incredible particle detector and to the discoveries and strides it will yield for the field of physics.

Trent Martin is the AMS Project Manager from the Johnson Space Center. He has worked on AMS since 1995 in various capacities for both Lockheed Martin and NASA. In addition, he currently manages the JSC James Webb Space Telescope activities and is a branch chief in the Engineering Directorate.

Ken Bollweg is the AMS Deputy Project Manager from Johnson Space Center. He has worked on AMS since 1994 in various capacities for both Lockheed Martin and NASA. Over the last five years, he and his family has spent three years living in Europe during the integration of AMS.

The Advantage of Laboratory Time in Space

This week, commentsfrom guest blogger and International Space Station Principal Investigator Dr.Mark Weislogel, as he reflects on the importance, advantages and joys oflong-duration investigations on the space station.

Scientists who have not used the International Space Stationbefore don’t always have a feel for how space experiments can be as successful,if not more so than those using other low-g environments. Researchers used tothe shuttle experience think in terms of a very small window of time to makechanges and adapt. Short duration investigations are intense and competitive.In hindsight, it seems they are high risk. If you have a three-hour slot to runyour experiment and some setback occurs that cannot be resolved, you lose aportion of your data.

On the space station this can also happen, but when youengage in long-duration investigations, you quickly realize that you have timeto think things over. Because of this, when unexpected events occur, you canrespond in a creative and curious way. The success factor of long-durationexperiments is high—barring any failures in equipment, a risk in any lab. Infact, you are very likely to discover things you would not anticipate; thingscompletely peripheral to the goal, which you will observe for the first time,due to man’s limited experience in microgravity.

When a setback occurs on the station, you get partialresults and then the investigation goes into storage or offline for a time.When you come back, you’ve had time to think about things. In my experiencewith the CapillaryFlow Experiment or CFE, the participating astronaut also had suggestions,an advantage to working with humans in space. Procedures were changed around fromthe previous run and we ended up with more data than ever planned and saw newthings en route. [Ground operations for the CFE investigation took place at theNational Center for Microgravity Research and Glenn Research Center, Cleveland,Ohio.]

NASA astronaut ScottKelly, Expedition 26 commander, works on the hardware setup for a CapillaryFlow Experiment (CFE) Vane Gap-1 experiment. The CFE is positioned on theMaintenance Work Area in the Destiny laboratory of the International SpaceStation. CFE observes the flow of fluid, in particular capillary phenomena, inmicrogravity.
(NASA Image ISS026E017024)

Transitions in fluid locations due to slight changes incontainer geometry. As a central vane is rotated in this elliptic cylindercontainer critical wetting geometries are established leading to wicking alongthe vane-wall gap, and/or a bulk shift of fluid from right to left.
(Image Credit: Suni Williams)

Time and resources factor into any discovery, of course, andsignificant astronautinvolvement makes a big difference, too; certainly more so than inautomated or robotic investigations. But even with the CapillaryChannel Flow or CCF investigation that I am working on right now, it is amazing! If you have a pump and some valves, you can configure them in many ways you did not anticipate and widen your data set. You want to get what you planned on, but it is a delight to get all this extra information that you never expected!

My previous experience dealt with handheld, smallexperiments, so to me CCF is a complicated investigation. CCF is focused ontwo-phase flow—a liquid system with gas bubbles. In space, the gas does notrise and we have not had many opportunities to study systems like this inmicrogravity. The investigation has pumps and valves and plungers andseparation chambers. While there are other studies devoted only to two-phaseflow, CCF has two-phase flow all throughout it just to generate the flow thatwe are interested in watching. CCF operates continuously, controlled from theground through the Microgravity Science Glovebox or MSG interface and does notrequire crew interaction.

We have gotten to the point with CCF where we can get around20 data points per day and we are on our way to where we can get hundreds andhundreds of data points in a 24/7 operation. The system is working, thoughthere are setbacks—often times with loss of signal during our commanding or dueto our own thing—in trying to take inventories of where the fluids and gasesare in the system. We are regularly downloading high resolution, high speedimages and plotting them right alongside of our analysis on the ground andseeing new things there, too. The 24/7 collection is exhausting, but we know wecan do it!

In the image above, single and multi-bubble migration and phaseseparation are driven passively by specific control of container shape. A taper ina polygonal sectioned conduit leads to capillary pumping of liquid from rightto left driving bubble left to right. Such mechanisms may be invoked by fluidsystems aboard spacecraft to separate and store fluids by phase without movingparts.
(Image Credit:
Scott Kelly and Cady Colemen)

On the ground, the joint German-US team started with 24/7 operationsto learn the experiment in the first 2 to 3 weeks. Then the team travelled toGermany and slowed the pace, learned the system, then ramped up again to 24/7operations. [Development and ground operations for CCF take place at the GermanAerospace Center, headquartered in Cologne, Germany.] Our operations are muchmore controlled than before, because we were working 16-hour days to supportthat. The team then continued running for a few weeks until we finished ourfirst set of objectives.

Unexpected developments are part of the joy in microgravityinvestigations. When you make a discovery, you think, “Oh my, of course thisshould happen!” But no one has seen it before, because no one has had this nicelow-g environment for such a long duration. This is fun because it kindles the samekind of excitement that you have in your lab when you are definitelydiscovering something. It’s very exciting!

The thing is that the chances for discovery are much higherwith long-duration investigations on the space station. This is because we do notlive in that environment. You may be trying to verify a theory—and that isgreat—but en route you are very likely to see things to compliment orsupplement your investigation and even take you in different directions. Youwon’t have thought of these discoveries until you actually see them. That’swhat it is like with fluids in microgravity, as well as with combustion, materialsscience, and other fields.

One thing I feel very good about is that most of myinvestigation results can apply in the real world right away. Our work hasalready led to design concepts to improve the performance and reliability ofadvanced systems, such as condensing heat exchangers and waste-water treatmentdevices. It can also help with liquid fuel tank and fuel transfer designs. Theresults give new insight, confirm theories, and are useful for space and groundresearch. So there is not always a long lead time between the science productsand their use. This generates a good feeling, seeing that there is contributionin an observable timescale. This is not common in science and usually takesdecades to realize. Instead, these results can improve design and space systemdesign right now.

Dr. Mark Weislogel isa professor in the Thermal and Fluid Sciences Group in the Maseeh College ofEngineering and Computer Science at Portland State University. He has researchexperience from government and private institutions. While employed by NASA, heproposed and conducted experiments relating to microgravity fluid mechanics.This unique subtopic area within fluid mechanics provides significantchallenges for designers of fluids management systems for aerospaceapplications. Weislogel continues to make extensive use of NASA ground-basedlow-gravity facilities and has completed experiments via space shuttle, theRussian Mir Space Station, and the International Space Station. While in theprivate sector, Weislogel served as principal investigator for applied researchprojects concerning high-performance heat transport systems,micrometeorite-safe space-based radiators, microscale cooling systems,emergency oxygen supply systems, and astronaut sleep stations. His current researchincludes passive non-capillary cooling cycles for satellite thermal control andcapillary fluidics at both micro- and macro length scales. Weislogel has writtenover 50 publications; see further details.

Three Misconceptions about the International Space Station

This week on A Lab Aloft, International Space Station Program Science Office Research Communications Specialist Jessica Nimon shares answers to some of the more frequently asked questions she receives about the International Space Station.

Recently I attended two different public forums as a representative for the International Space Station Program Scientist’s Office. It was an exciting opportunity to share information about the station with the public and to get some feedback in return. The first event, Space Day on the Capitol in Austin, Texas, was a chance to speak with state legislators, visiting students and even tourists. A week later, I went to Colorado Springs for the National Space Symposium, which was more of a traditional conference setting for space businesses and enthusiasts.

Children and educators converge
at the State Capitol for inspiring
and informational activities.
(Credit: NASA)

My main objective at these events was to educate and answer questions regarding the research done on the space station. I anticipated a varied set of queries, but was surprised to find that when it came down to it, attendees at both events had similar misconceptions regarding the station. So in this blog, I hope to take a few moments of your time to correct the three most frequent misunderstandings regarding this amazing orbiting laboratory.

Misconception 1: The space station ends with the space shuttle

While the public seems well aware of the impending retirement of the space shuttle fleet, they are mixed in their understanding of what this means for the space station. Quite a few people asked me, “Does the space station retire with the shuttle?” In a word, no. The international partner agreements plan to continue to operate the space station through the year 2020. Now that we are finally at assembly complete, the entire International Space Station program is ready for full utilization for research and technology investigations!

While we may not arrive there via the space shuttle any longer, we continue to have crew travel capabilities with the Russian Soyuz. In fact, American astronauts have successfully and safely flown with the Russians on Soyuz for many years. American companies are also pursuing new crew vehicle options to offer transportation to the space station in the future. The question of upmass—the capability to lift large amounts of payload and supply weight—will continue to be addressed with international partner unmanned transport vehicles: JAXA HTV and ESA ATV, as well as two new American commercial resupply vehicles: Space X Dragon and Orbital Cygnus.

Misconception 2: Scientists do not need the space station

One of my favorite questions to pose to the student groups that would visit the NASA booth at the National Space Symposium was “what is the space station used for?” Sometimes a shy hand would raise and a boy or girl would offer that the station was built for research. More often than not, however, I was met with complete silence and a sea of blinking eyes. What an opportunity to educate these young minds on the fascinating purpose of the station!

Pointing to the scale model—which was to 1/100 the size of the space station, situated above a mini football field to illustrate the actual size—my colleagues and I took turns explaining. From the very beginning, the point of this unique facility was to perform experiments in the microgravity environment of low Earth orbit. It is interesting to note that investigations were conducted during the course of assembly, as well. Because the research did not have to wait for station completion, we are already seeing results from the early studies in space, which is remarkable!

Not only can scientists use the space station for short- and long-duration investigations, but they can also participate in the growing body of knowledge generated from their predecessors. Space station research has been published in prestigious science journals and continues to generate spinoff benefits. This information stands to serve people across the globe. When investigations yield results, they have the potential to cross all boundaries—gender, race, socioeconomic, etc. Reading this blog and the space station research and technology Web pages are a great way to keep up with emerging benefits.

The International Space Station length and width is about
the size of a football field.
(NASA Image)

Misconception 3: When the shuttle retires, there won’t be Americans in orbit

While I was at the National Space Symposium, there was a space station sighting opportunity for the Colorado Springs area. I shared this viewing prospect with visitors at the NASA exhibit. Some were amazed that they could go out onto their lawn, gaze at the sky, and see what appears to be a bright, fast-moving star and really be looking at an international orbiting laboratory. It was fun to remind people that while they stare up, the crew may be looking down, too.

This idea of humans in orbit provides the chance to share an important milestone reached in November of 2010—the space station now has a track record of over a decade of continued human presence in orbit! With the impending shuttle retirement, however, some fear that the days of Americans in space are numbered. Since crewmembers will fly via the Russian Soyuz, there is a misapprehension that only Russians will get to view back at Earth from the station in the future. The population of the space station, however, will remain as international as the collaboration that built it. Not only will we still have an American presence in space, but we will continue to have participants from all over the world. Currently we have two Americans, three Russians, and a European crewmember working in orbit.

NASA astronaut Catherine (Cady) Coleman and European Space Agency
astronaut Paolo Nespoli, both Expedition 26 flight engineers, use still cameras
at windows in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station
during rendezvous and docking activities of space shuttle Discovery (STS-133).
(NASA Image ISS026-E-030172)

The international investment has already been made in the space station. Now is the time to not only continue use, but to ramp up our employment of this unique resource. Scientists have the upcoming decade to ask questions and send up investigations to make the most of the asset we have in this incredible laboratory.

Jessica Nimon worked in the aerospace industry as a technical writer for seven years before joining the International Space Station Program Science Office as the Research Communications Specialist. Jessica composes Web features, blog entries, and manages the @ISS_Research Twitter feed to share space station research and technology news with the public. She has a master’s degree in English from the University of Dallas.