Brussels, 15 Jun 2006
PAMELA, (Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics) was launched on the morning of 15 June in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The satellite, an EU-funded collaboration between astrophysicists in Italy, Russia, Sweden and Germany will de-mystify some of the universe's dark materials - antimatter and dark matter.
The project is important because it will help shed light on two of the mysterious, yet all-encompassing problems in modern astrophysics - what dark matter is, and where antimatter went. Physicists tell us that as little as five per cent of the universe is constructed in the same way that we observe things to be made on earth. 70 per cent is a 'dark energy' and the remaining 25 per cent 'dark matter'. The 'dark' in these two substances is no coincidence - we simply do not know what they are.
While dark energy is homogenous and ubiquitous but invisible, dark matter has been shown to be made from particles, but very different from the particles constructing the world around us. Antimatter is rare in our universe, but again, physicists tell us that shortly after the big bang, there was as much antimatter as there was matter. What happened to it all?
PAMELA will measure cosmic rays with unprecedented accuracy. Cosmic rays will help to open a window onto the past, and provide some answers to these enduring questions. Pamela studies the rays with a large magnet, attached to a number of detectors, able to identify the particles that cosmic rays are made up of, their trajectories and energy. The mission is doubly important because it will take the receptor array out of the Earth's atmosphere, where cosmic rays interact. High-altitude balloons and brief experiments aboard the space shuttle have previously been the only methods to study cosmic rays in any detail.
'At the moment, Pamela is the most advanced instrument for this field of astrophysics. When Pamela will get into orbit, the second and most amazing part of its scientific adventure will begin, with the aim of discovering some of the most intriguing and complex mysteries of the universe,' says Piegiorgio Picozza, Director of the Tor Vergata department at the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN), who coordinated Italian and international collaboration components of research.