AMS Problems Will Delay End of Shuttle Program Beyond FY2010

AMS Problems Will Delay End of Shuttle Program Beyond FY2010

Not many people really expected the remaining shuttle flights to be completed by the end of FY2010, a short five months away, but the extension into FY2011 reportedly is certain now that a scientific instrument due to be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) will not be ready on time. The New York Times reported yesterday that the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) will undergo a change-out of its magnet before launch and will not reach Kennedy Space Center at least until August. It was due for launch in July. NASA is still deciding when the launch will take place.

A $1.5 billion scientific instrument to search for antimatter, dark matter and missing matter in the universe, the AMS was conceived by Nobel prizewinner Sam Ting many years ago. Working outside the traditional National Research Council (NRC) Decadal Survey process for initiating astrophysics missions, Ting put together an international consortium to fund and construct the instrument. Ting worked through the Department of Energy (DOE), which sponsors high energy physics research, rather than NASA. DOE provided only a nominal amount of funding; the bulk came from an international consortium of institutes. It was built at CERN in Switzerland. NASA’s only involvement was a promise to launch the instrument to the ISS when it was built.

An initial version of the AMS flew on the space shuttle in 1998. The ISS version was supposed to carry a superconducting magnet, cooled by liquid helium, five times stronger than the magnet flown on the shuttle, according to the newspaper. However, the coolant was only sufficient for three years of operations. Ting was quoted by the New York Times as saying that he had decided that since the ISS will operate until 2020 instead of 2015, he would rather use the less capable magnet that does not require cooling so that it can operate for many more years. However, the Orlando Sentinel reported in March that a potential design flaw in the magnet had been identified that could mean the instrument would not work as expected.

The AMS has been controversial for many reasons — not the least of which is that it did not undergo peer review by the Decadal Survey process. Its position on the space shuttle manifest often seemed vulnerable and decisions made to truncate the ISS program and reduce the number of space shuttle missions following President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration initiative nearly doomed it. Dr. Ting’s relentless lobbying for the mission prevailed, however. In the 2008 NASA Authorization Act (section 611(c)), Congress directed NASA to add a shuttle mission to launch the instrument as long as it was safe to do so and did not significantly increase NASA’s costs compared with earlier estimates. AMS supporters argued that not only was the scientific research valuable, but the United States should not renege on its commitment to the international consortium that paid for the instrument.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.