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Change In Experiment Will Delay Shuttle Launch 64

necro81 writes "A $1.5 billion gamma ray experiment, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, that was to have launched aboard the space shuttle Endeavor to the International Space Station in July, has undergone a last minute design change that will change the launch date, pushing back the end of the shuttle program by at least several months. The change replaces the original liquid helium-cooled superconducting magnet with a more conventional one, which will reduce the risks involved (superconducting magnets can be problematic — just ask CERN) and will greatly extend the useful life of the spectrometer (the liquid helium coolant would have boiled away within a few years of launch). Although the conventional electromagnet is only 1/5th as strong, its increased lifespan should allow for substantially more science to be conducted, especially considering the ISS's extended mission life. As the change is still underway, the impact to the final shuttle schedule is not fully known."
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Change In Experiment Will Delay Shuttle Launch

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  • Seriously? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 25, 2010 @08:06PM (#31979316)

    IAASIE (I am a space instrumentation engineer) and I really find such a major last minute decision hard to believe, seeing how long and detailed the flight model / integration tests are...

    • Re:Seriously? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by MichaelSmith ( 789609 ) on Sunday April 25, 2010 @08:28PM (#31979466) Homepage Journal

      IAASIE (I am a space instrumentation engineer) and I really find such a major last minute decision hard to believe, seeing how long and detailed the flight model / integration tests are...

      Maybe they are actually swapping one validated unit for a different validated unit.

      • Re:Seriously? (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 25, 2010 @08:40PM (#31979546)

        Yeah, according to Wikipedia, they are indeed swapping the cryo-cooled superconducting electromagnet for the conventional one that flew on the AMS-1. Reading the AMS website, I found out that both have the same dimensions and mechanical interfaces to the instrument, since they were developed as swappable alternatives for short- and long-lived mission profiles. However I think the overall working of AMS-2 has still changed enough (especially with the removal of the cryogenic circuitry and the change in magnetic field) for the whole integration and testing process to be redone from scratch.

      • Then why would the launch date be pushed back by several months?
    • And seriously how long does it take to design a proper instrument?

      This experiment has been in development for over 12 years (since AMS 1 flew in 1998).
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by gumbi west ( 610122 )

      I also find it hard to believe that someone would name a spectrometer designed to measure gammas the "alpha spectrometer."

      • Re:Seriously? (Score:5, Informative)

        by reverseengineer ( 580922 ) on Sunday April 25, 2010 @11:05PM (#31980286)
        That's because, contrary to what the summary says, this is a cosmic ray detector, not a gamma ray detector. The point of the big magnet is that there will be charged particles streaming through that can be steered by a magnetic field (and so identified). Of course, most cosmic rays are protons, but a significant fraction are alpha particles, and one of the major objectives of the experiment is to look for alpha antiparticles (antihelium nuclei, in other words).
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Sponge Bath ( 413667 )

      IAASIE (I am a space instrumentation engineer)...

      Quiet peon, and bow to the administrator! [flexes pencil like arms]

    • I agree - maybe the NASA guys want to extend the shuttle life because the alternatives aren't sorted? It seems very suspect to make this 11th hour change for the last mission by the fleet. Still, it will delay decommissioning costs and push the scheduled expenses back which will please some at NASA.
    • Re:Seriously? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Kartoffel ( 30238 ) on Sunday April 25, 2010 @09:16PM (#31979742)
      Yep. I was a payloads integration engineer TEN YEARS AGO, and wrote one of the early ops baselines for this shuttle flight.
    • Re:Seriously? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <fairwaterNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday April 26, 2010 @01:11AM (#31980874) Homepage

      Doubly so since the cryogens aren't the only limit on the experiment's lifetime. There's also the gas supply for the photomultiplier tubes, whose expected life I cannot find anywhere.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by L4t3r4lu5 ( 1216702 )
      IATGWTTEAAISACTIAEIF (I am the guy who thinks that explaining acronyms and initialisms straight after them is an exercise in futility).

      I prefer to tall this phenomonon VAES Syndrome (Verbose Acronym Explaination Syndrome... Awww crap).
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      If anyone other than Sam Ting were running it, I would also find it hard to believe. But Sam Ting gets what he wants, no matter the cost, no matter how stupid.
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I think that Dr. Ting and his associates should get tuned in to reality. This is the second time around for this experiment. They are holding up billions of dollars in tax payers money for a launch that was prepared a long time ago. Life has to go on. Maybe they should look else where to get this thing to ISS? Perhaps one of the unmanned cargo flights?

      If they can't be on this bus then find another way. Why should things get held up because they can't make up their minds?

  • by machine321 ( 458769 ) on Sunday April 25, 2010 @08:17PM (#31979396)

    If only it ran Ubuntu, then we'd know what's the Shuttleworth.

    • by spikeb ( 966663 )
      haha if i still had mod points, this would be going up.
    • by grcumb ( 781340 )

      If only it ran Ubuntu, then we'd know what's the Shuttleworth.

      Actually, the firmware for the original was written by a famous kernel dev [wikipedia.org], which explains why early headlines stated:


  • by clyde_cadiddlehopper ( 1052112 ) on Sunday April 25, 2010 @08:44PM (#31979564)
    I wonder if this delay extends the set of contingencies (such as reboost, de-orbit, or repair) for the experimental unmanned space plane currently on orbit. [defensenews.com] The recent X37B liftoff was on a much lower inclination than the ISS's and "is designed to fly at altitudes between 110 and 500 nautical miles, or 126 to 575 statute miles" according to SpaceflightNow. This puts it within reach of Endeavor. The last time a supersecret bird went awry, they had to shoot it before it fell to keep it from raining hydrazine and beryllium [wikipedia.org] on populated areas ... or so they said.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Having a different inclination actually puts X37B out of reach of Endeavor or any Shuttle-ISS flight. These are completely different missions with no plans for any interaction between them.

      Regarding your skepticism about the destruction of USA 193, I refer you to Jim Oberg's excellent summary here [jamesoberg.com]

  • by reverseengineer ( 580922 ) on Sunday April 25, 2010 @09:36PM (#31979844)
    Just throwing a question out there: What's holding back the use of high critical-temperature superconductors in applications like the AMS magnet? Helium cooling is a vital, yet difficult and expensive proposition for many high-profile physics projects, to say nothing of innummerable NMR and MRI magnets out there. I realize that as ceramic-type substances, cuprate superconductors aren't as easily drawn into wire as the niobium alloys commonly used, but it seems like those technical challenges are worth dealing with in order to cool with liquid nitrogen rather than liquid helium. Particularly the superfluid helium that was planned for AMS- that stuff abhors a container. Is there some other physical limitation to cuprates that I'm missing, or is it just that the multi-decade nature of the big projects have kept them from adopting newer materials?
    • by wizardforce ( 1005805 ) on Sunday April 25, 2010 @10:06PM (#31979994) Journal

      There are a few reasons: 1) high temp superconductors have a relatively low critical magnetic field strength at liquid Nitrogen temperatures and 2) At this point, switching to high tempt superconductors in the design would require an even longer delay due to the testing required. Of course if 1/5 the field strength is a ok then high temp superconductors should still have a sufficient critical magnetic field strength at liquide Nitrogen temperatures. Although really, you'd still have coolant boiling away just at a somewhat slower pace.

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      High temperature superconductors generally can't produce big magnetic fields without the superconductivity breaking down. They're fine for carrying big currents in straight lines, but they make terrible magnets. That's why the LHC's magnets are low temperature superconductors, even though this isn't a space application which had to be planned 20 years in advance.

  • NOT gamma-rays (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    AMS is not a gamma-ray detector. It is designed to measure cosmic rays. http://ams.cern.ch/AMS/ams_homepage.html [ams.cern.ch]
  • by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <fairwaterNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday April 26, 2010 @01:07AM (#31980860) Homepage

    AMS is one of the poster children for a capability that will be lost with the retirement of the shuttle, a capability many insist we don't need - intact equipment return.
    The original plan was, when the cryogens ran out, to return AMS to Earth and rerun the pre launch calibration checks (essentially using a particle accelerator to shoot particles through the AMS) - not only allowing us to learn about the effects of the orbital environment, but also being able to apply the knowledge of those effects to the analysis of the science data collected on orbit.

  • What kind of experiment are we talking about (/should i have read TFA for) here?
    • What kind of experiment are we talking about (/should i have read TFA for) here?

      They're going to fire large amounts of nickles and dimes into the sun from a cannon disguised as a telescope to see exactly how much metal is needed to stop the fusion reaction and cause a supernova. The delay is being caused by some guy who forgot to bring exact change, and now he's holding up the queue by arguing with the cashier why he can't just put in a dollar.

      But really, something with cosmic radiation, particle of the week, and magnets. A typical plot used in modern scifi, only with the added realism

  • the major objectives of the experiment is to look for alpha antiparticles Window [solarcontrolfilmsinc.com]
  • Someone really needs to fix the summary because it is NOT a gamma ray experiment at all. It is a cosmic ray experiment that detects baryonic matter (protons and small nuclei).

In the realm of scientific observation, luck is granted only to those who are prepared. - Louis Pasteur