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August 14, 2009: NASA's space shuttle program is winding down. With only about half a dozen more flights, shuttle crews will put the finishing touches on the International Space Station (ISS), bringing to an end twelve years of unprecedented orbital construction. The icon and workhorse of the American space program will have finished its Great Task.
But, as Apple's CEO Steve Jobs might say, there is one more thing...
An act of Congress in 2008 added another flight to the schedule near the end of the program. Currently scheduled for 2010, this extra flight of the shuttle is going to launch a hunt for antimatter galaxies.
The device that does the actual hunting is called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer--or AMS for short. It's a $1.5 billion cosmic ray detector that the shuttle will deliver to the ISS.
In addition to sensing distant galaxies made entirely of antimatter, the AMS will also test leading theories of dark matter, an invisible and mysterious substance that comprises 83 percent of the matter in the universe. And it will search for strangelets, a theoretical form of matter that's ultra-massive because it contains so-called strange quarks. Better understanding of strangelets will help scientists to study microquasars and tiny, primordial blacks holes as they evaporate, thus proving whether these small black holes even exist.