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Italians put Pammy into orbit

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Tomorrow will see the launch of Pamela, a satellite designed to seek out evidence of dark matter and anti-matter in cosmic rays.

Pamela (Payload for Anti-matter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics) is a joint project between the Italian and Russian space agencies, with contributions from their equivalents in Germany and Sweden.

The satellite, described as a "parallelepipedon 1.3 metres tall", will spend three years in a quasi-polar elliptic orbit between 300 and 600 kilometres from the ground. The Italian Space Agency (ASI) says the satellite will measure flux, energy, and characteristics of galactic, interplanetary, and solar cosmic rays at a new level of precision.

The main instrument, which weighs in at nearly 500kg, is essentially a large magnet with a variety of detectors attached, capable of identifying the particles in the cosmic rays, their trajectories and their energies, all of which help to understand their origins.

Piegiorgio Picozza, director of the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) section of Tor Vergata, described the satellite as "the most advanced instrument for this field of astrophysics".

Matter than we can see accounts for just five per cent of the universe. The remaining 95 per cent is theorised to be composed of around 25 per cent dark matter and 70 per cent dark energy.

Anti-matter, meanwhile, exists only in tiny quantities, although matter and anti-matter are thought to have existed in roughly equal quantities at the time of the Big Bang.

Since the two types of matter anihilate each other on contact, this poses a problem: why is there so much more normal matter hanging around in the form of planets and stars? What is the difference between the two kinds of matter? Researchers at ASI and the Russian Space Agency hope that Pamela will shed some light on these mysteries.

The launch is slated for 11:00am local time on 15 June from the cosmodrome of Baikonur, in Kazakhstan. ®

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