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Astronauts upgrade ISS dark matter detector

Fresh pumps were installed on a cosmic ray detector - which could one day detect dark matter - in a spacewalk lasting over six hours.

To install the instrument’s upgraded cooling system, which is located outside the International Space Station (ISS), the crew needed to reconnect power and data cables from the alpha magnetic spectrometer (AMS) including intricate connection work that required making a clean cut for each existing stainless steel tube connected to the device.

It is hoped the AMS will one day be able to prove the existence of dark matter which it is thought to make up most of the matter in the universe.

The AMS has been looking for evidence of dark matter since 2011 and was originally designed for a three year mission. While it has not discovered dark matter, it has collected a significant amount of data on cosmic rays, how the rays travel through space, and what produces them.

It was the third spacewalk in nearly three weeks for Italy’s Luca Parmitano and Nasa’s Andrew Morgan.

One more spacewalk remains before Nasa can declare the AMS successfully repaired. Without four new pumps for cooling, the device would be crippled and ultimately useless.

Nasa compared the series of four spacewalks with heart bypass surgery as they are designed to bypass the old, degraded pumps. The $2bn spectrometer was never designed to receive hands-on repairs like the astronauts attempted yesterday. If the new plumbing holds, the instrument should last the entire life of the space station, or another five to 10 years.

Given the high stakes, Mission Control urged the spacewalkers to “take good care” of the pumps.

“Good news. We show that we can tear things apart and build them back up,” Morgan said after the successful operation.

They completed the spacewalk in six hours and two minutes, which was faster than planned.

A fourth spacewalk is needed to check these reconfigured cooling lines for leaks and add more thermal insulation. With two supply ships being readied for launch this week to the space station, from Cape Canaveral and Kazakhstan, however, it is uncertain when the final spacewalk will occur.

In October ISS astronauts started upgrading the original nickel-hydrogen batteries located on the station’s truss with newer lithium-ion batteries.

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