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A couple of days before lift-off, Mark Sistilli went down to the space-shuttle launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, to meet researchers working on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) and to sneak a last nervy glimpse of their 7-tonne cosmic-ray detector before the shuttle's cargo doors closed.

"The AMS was tucked in and ready to go," says Sistilli, NASA programme manager for the mission. On Friday 29 April, if all goes to plan, the AMS will leave on board the Endeavour shuttle, bound for the International Space Station (ISS). It is arguably the station's most important scientific payload so far.

The AMS is a cylindrical magnet, which has already flown on a 1998 shuttle flight, surrounded by a suite of new instruments for detecting cosmic rays. It is the result of former NASA administrator Dan Goldin's quest to find meaningful science projects for the ISS, and of Nobel-prize-winning physicist Samuel Ting's unorthodox ideas about antimatter.

The US$2-billion experiment has been sold partly as a search for regions of the Universe containing gas, stars and planets made exclusively of antimatter. This has raised eyebrows among those high-energy and particle physicists who doubt that such regions exist.

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Category: Science