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Boffins fail to detect Moon's strangeness

Quark hunt ends in a handful of dust

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Scientists hoping to sniff out elusive "strange matter", apparently detected back in 1998 on a space shuttle mission, have failed to find corroborating evidence of strangeness from the lunar surface.

According to New Scientist, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-01) aboard Discovery sniffed a "strangelet" - a "nucleus like that of oxygen but with three times its mass" - which theoretically contains strange quarks boasting "roughly 10 times the mass of the up or down quark".

However, NASA's planned deployment of the AMS-02, which might provide further evidence of strange matter, was knocked back following the Columbia disaster and the device is not now slated to arrive aboard the International Space Station until September next year.

Accordingly, impatient boffins looked to another possible source: the Moon's surface. Scientists have theorised that some neutron stars "might actually be made of strange matter". A collision between two could eject fragments of strange matter, the aforementioned strangelets.

Such matter could, suggests Yale University physicist Jack Sandweiss, be floating around in space and, since the Moon "has no magnetic field to deflect charged particles, any strangelets arriving would hit its surface and stay embedded there".

Cue 15 grams of Moon dust scooped up during the Apollo missions, which Sandweiss's team accelerated past a "powerful magnet". NS elaborates: "Any strangelets present would curve less in the magnetic field than normal matter - but none was observed."

Sandweiss insisted: "If AMS-01 had been a real event, we would have found it."

While this doesn't necessarily mean that strangelets have gone the way of the equally elusive pentaquark, scientists are looking to AMS-02 to resolve the matter once and for all. Sandweiss concluded: "Then we'll finally answer the question. AMS is really the right way to do this." ®

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