The first results from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), which is an experiment operating in orbit on the International Space Station (ISS), have been released.
It’s been two years since the delivery via Space Shuttle to the ISS (in May, 2011) of the AMS-02 instrument, which was especially designed to explore the properties of antimatter. And it’s been a long time coming to get to this point, since the experiment was first proposed in 1995 by the Nobel Prize-winning M.I.T. physicist, professor Samuel Ting. A prototype instrument, the AMS-01, flew in a short-duration Space Shuttle mission in 1998, and had much lower sensitivity.
Over 16 countries across the globe participate in the AMS mission, and the instrument underwent testing at the CERN particle physics research center near Geneva and also in the Netherlands before being launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The lifetime of the mission is expected to extend for over 10 years. In this first data release, with over 30 billion cosmic rays detected, the AMS has detected among these over 400,000 positrons, the positively charged antiparticles to electrons. This is the most antimatter that has ever been directly measured in space.
It is hoped that the AMS can shed light on dark matter, since one of the possible signatures of dark matter is the production of positrons and electrons when dark matter particles annihilate. This assumes that some type of WIMP is the explanation for dark matter, WIMP meaning a “weakly interacting massive particle”. Weakly interacting signifies that dark matter particles (in this scenario highly favored by many physicists) would interact through the weak nuclear force, but not the electromagnetic force. Which basically explains why we can’t easily detect them except through their gravitational effects. Massive particle refers to a particle substantially more massive than a proton or neutron, which have rest masses of just under 1 GeV (1 giga volt) in energy terms. A WIMP dark matter particle mass could be 10 to 1000 times or more higher. The lightest member of the neutralino family is the most-favored hypothesized WIMP dark matter candidate.
The figure below shows the positron relative abundance versus energy, based on 18 months of AMS operational data. The energy of detected positrons ranges from 1/2 GeV to over 300 GeV. The abundance, shown on the y-axis, is the fraction of positrons relative to total electrons and positrons detected at a given energy. The spectrum shows a clear trend to relatively fewer positrons as the energy grows to 10 GeV and then a substantially increasing relative number of positrons at higher energies. This general shape for the spectrum was seen with previous experiments including Fermi, Caprice94 and Pamela, but is much clearer with the AMS due to the higher resolution and significantly greater number of positrons detected. It is particularly this increase in positrons seen above 10 GeV that is suggestive of sources other than the general cosmic ray background.
So what is the source of the energetic positrons detected by the AMS? Some or all of these could be produced when two dark matter WIMP particles meet one another. In the WIMP scenario the dark matter particle such as the neutralino is neutrally charged (no electromagnetic interaction, remember) and also its own antiparticle. And when a particle meets its antiparticle what happens is that they mutually annihilate. The energy of the pair of colliding dark matter particles is transformed into lighter particles, including electron-positron pairs and energetic photons including gamma rays.
Another likely source is pulsars, which are rotating neutron stars with magnetic fields. Since neutron stars are compact and rotate quickly, and their magnetic field strengths are high, electrons and positrons can be accelerated to very high energy. In particular, the Geminga pulsar is the closest energetic pulsar and has been suggested as a major source of these extra positrons.
More data is needed, especially at higher energies above 100 GeV. Over the next few years as AMS continues to operate and the number of positrons detected climbs to 1 million and above, this spectral shape will be better determined. And as the shape of the high-energy portion of the spectrum becomes clearer, it will help elucidate whether dark matter or pulsars or something else are the primary source of the positrons.
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