- Disney+’s newest documentary, “Among the Stars,” features a pioneering NASA mission designed to sift through the stars for evidence of dark matter and antimatter.
- The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02), which launched in 2011, is attached to the International Space Station, and has collected data on 180 billion charged cosmic ray events.
- The documentary follows NASA astronauts over the years as they perform maintenance on instrument in orbit.
Some 250 miles above Earth, an instrument attached to the International Space Station (ISS)—dubbed the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS)—is sifting through the cosmos, working to answer some of our universe’s most pressing questions. The astronauts, engineers, and scientists tasked with keeping the instrument operational are the subject of “Among the Stars,” a dramatic new documentary released on Disney+ this week.
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Researchers created AMS to measure the cosmic rays that pierce through our solar system and beyond, helping us learn more about the mysterious matter that makes up the bulk of our universe. So far, the instrument has detected over 180 billion cosmic ray events. The data from these events will help NASA and other space agencies protect astronauts and equipment in space that this cosmic radiation could harm.
AMS has also detected antiprotons, the antimatter version of a proton, and positrons, which are the antimatter version of electrons. Both of these types of antimatter likely form during the collision of cosmic rays. The instrument has also detected some of the heaviest forms of antimatter, including antihelium, anticarbon, and antioxygen—particles whose origins are still relatively unknown. Together, these discoveries have shed new light on the composition of our universe.
“The shocking thing is that not a single result can be explained by the current theoretical model,” Nobel laureate and physicist Samuel Ting, who is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and leads the AMS experiment, tells Popular Mechanics.
The idea for the AMS experiment came to Ting on a stroll through the gardens of his home in Geneva, Switzerland, shortly after plans for another project (the Superconducting Super Collider) fell through. Several members of congress—including current NASA Administrator Sen. Bill Nelson—successfully lobbied on behalf of the AMS. In 2011, it finally launched aboard the space shuttle Endeavor.
AMS is the most precise instrument of its kind to operate in space. It’s composed of a permanent magnet, which generates a magnetic field roughly 3,000 times stronger than that of Earth, and warps the pathway of incoming particles so that they can feed directly into the instrument’s eight detectors. These detectors measure everything from the particle’s charge, to its speed and direction. These data help scientists back on Earth identify the particles that pass through. Operating from the ISS (as opposed to on Earth’s surface) allows the machine to make extremely accurate measurements, says Ting.
Ting says the project will go on until the space station retires in the next decade. “Eventually, with this accurate, comprehensive data, a theory should be developed to understand our lessons,” he says.
Some moments of the documentary are legitimately heart-pounding (one episode details a terrifying 2018 incident in which an astronaut and cosmonaut riding aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket had their mission aborted shortly after launch), but it’s fairly light on the science. Regardless, it’s a phenomenal introduction to a mission that has helped us make better sense of our mysterious universe.
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