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The hunt for antimatter begins at the space station: Will dilithium be next?

A $2 billion particle detector, newly installed on the International Space Station, begins its search for antimatter, dark matter, quarks, and more.

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This photo provided by NASA shows a close-up view of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS) in space shuttle Endeavour's payload bay, May 17. On May 19, astronauts used the shuttle's and space station's robotic arms to install the particle detector, which has already sent back reams of data to Earth-bound scientists.

NASA / Reuters

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The most complex physics experiment ever launched into space was bolted to the International Space Station on Thursday, marking the start of an exploration into cosmic origins that could last well beyond a decade.

The experiment, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer 2, arrived aboard the space shuttle Endeavour on Wednesday.

Its successful activation also marks the first truly national-laboratory-scale physical science experiment at a space station that, so far, has only conducted what on Earth might be considered bench-top experiments in biological and physical sciences.

Within a few hours of its installation, the $2 billion particle detector began returning "an enormous amount of data," says the project's lead scientist, Samuel Ting, a Nobel prize-winning physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The research team, which includes 600 physicists in 16 countries, will use the 7.6-ton instrument to study very high-energy, very massive cosmic rays, which only can be directly captured and measured in space.

In addition, they will be hunting for evidence of dark matter, some 90 percent of the matter in the universe. And they will try to help physicists and cosmologists figure out why the universe exists at all.

When it formed from the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago, the cosmos is thought to have contained equal amounts of normal matter and its mirror opposite, antimatter.

By all rights, the two should have annihilated each other, leaving nothing behind. But significant amounts of matter survived.

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