$ 2 Billion Particle Detector Featured in New Disney Plus Docuseries ‘Among the Stars’: Q&A with Principal Investigator Sam Ting

As World Space Week is in full swing around the world, Disney Plus takes center stage with its fascinating new ‘Among the Stars’ docuseries lighting the fuse of six episodes starting today (6 October).

Filmed over the course of two years just before the pandemic broke, this journey behind the curtain begins following veteran NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy as he dons his spacesuit for a third and final flight to the International Space Station (ISS) to attempt a daring fix on a $ 2 billion piece of equipment called an alpha magnetic spectrometer (AMS). As the rescue operation goes a bit awry, this intriguing series turns into a spotlight on the entire NASA ground crew and their dedication to mission objectives.

MIT physicist Sam Ting, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist whose visionary project seeks to unravel the mysteries of the universe by recording subatomic particles called charged cosmic rays, which can provide evidence of dark matter – a mysterious substance and invisible which constitutes about 80% of the matter of the universe. In “Among The Stars”, listening to him remembering to be sitting by a pond like a boy with his grandmother, looking up to the sky to wonder what’s out there is share his unbridled passion.

“It’s a very complete detector with seven elements that measure the charge, mass, speed” of these subatomic particles, AMS principal investigator Ting told Space.com. “Everything you know is measured. There are a total of 650 microprocessors and 300,000 channels. In ten years, we have measured 180 billion charged cosmic rays.”

Related: AMS antimatter hunting experiment in space (photos)

NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan works on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer during a spacewalk on the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA)

Its 7.5-ton space magnet was originally installed on the ISS in 2011 as the first precision particle physics detector to operate in space. Led by MIT, the effort is an international effort with the support of 44 different institutions, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and sponsored by NASA and the Department of Energy.

Space.com spoke with Ting on the eve of the series premiere to learn more about his particle detection machine, how he followed his curiosity as a career path, and what advice he would offer budding scientists in the hope of unraveling the secrets of the cosmos.

Espace.com: How did the shooting of “Among the Stars go? “

Sam Ting: The cameras weren’t following me most of the time. I was mostly watching from the control room in Geneva, Switzerland as they mulled over the repair work and continued to collect data for the experiment. But I’ve been to all the important meetings and people from NASA have come to Switzerland to tell me about what they’re doing.

A view of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer - 02 (AMS-02) experiment outside the International Space Station.

A view of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer 2 experiment outside the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA)

Espace.com: In simple terms, can you explain how the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer works?

Ting: There are two kinds of cosmic rays: those that do not carry a charge, like light waves and neutrinos, and then there are charged cosmic rays: electrons, positrons, protons and atomic nuclei. Because they carry a load, they must have a mass. Because they have a mass, they are absorbed within a radius of 100 kilometers [62 miles] of the earth’s atmosphere. So you cannot measure the intrinsic property of cosmic rays charged on the ground.

To measure the property of charged cosmic rays in space, you need to place a detector in space. Because you want to measure the load, you need a magnet. Inside the magnet, the positive particles go in one direction and the negative ones in the opposite direction. Putting a magnet in space isn’t easy, and we figured out how to put a big magnet in space. It is the first of its kind and we decided to put the best possible instrument in it.

It is a very complete detector with seven elements which measure the charge, the mass and the speed. Everything you know is measured. There are a total of 650 microprocessors and 300,000 channels. So far, in 10 years, we have measured 180 billion charged cosmic rays. That’s a huge amount of signals, measured with an accuracy of 1%. The properties do not agree with current theoretical models. What we know about cosmic rays requires major modification.

NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan works on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer during a spacewalk on the International Space Station.

NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan works on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer during a spacewalk on the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA)

Espace.com: What was the defining moment for you when choosing a career path?

Ting: I started at the University of Michigan in mechanical engineering. After a year, my advisor told me that I was not a mechanical engineer. Because at that time there were no computers. It was necessary to make drawings by looking from above, by looking to the side, by looking from above. So my counselor told me I should go physics and skip undergraduate classes and go to college. The advisor was Professor Robert White, a well-known engineer. And that’s how I became a physicist.

Espace.com: What motivates and inspires you in your field that makes the mind grow?

Ting: Curiousity. Choosing a topic and asking the right question is very important for a physicist. Often my experiments will receive a lot of objections from the scientific community. People think it’s too hard and no one can do it. Even more people think it’s totally unnecessary. Physics does not depend on votes. Public opinion is important, but not the most important. When you change public opinion with your end results, you are making a contribution on the ground.

Espace.com: What advice would you give to those who wish to study physics and astronomy?

Ting: From my own experience, I think everyone’s ability is limited. To make a contribution, you need to realize that you need to focus on just one thing. If you are trying to do physics, you should know that it is the most important thing for you. The other things are not important.

All six chapters of “Among the Stars” are now available to stream on Disney Plus.

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