CERN’s Star-Trek Moment: “Close to Discovering if Antimatter Obeys Gravity”


According to the scientists at CERN — the same organization responsible for the Large Hadron Collider — we're about to solve one of the greatest unsolved problems in physics: that although the Big Bang resulted in a huge outpouring of matter and antimatter particles, that antimatter has an opposite charge, that it is still made of normal energy and it therefore obeys the same laws of gravity as matter.

So sure, in fact, that when the space shuttle Endeavour finally blasts off — hopefully in five days — it will carry on board a $2 billion antimatter detector known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer just to prove it.

Until then, though, all we know is that it's the matter particles we can see, because our Universe is made up almost entirely of them. So where did all the antimatter go? And most importantly, what kind of an alternate universe is it creating?

Antiparticles are extremely difficult to isolate, trap and study, because they disappear in less than a microsecond when they come back into contact with matter particles.

But last year the team at CERN's Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus (ALPHA) managed to lure some antihydrogen into a magnetic trap, whereupon it existed for around some 172 milliseconds. Last week they managed to cool the antiprotons which go into creating the antihydrogen and keep 309 atoms of it safe for more than 17 minutes.

Seventeen minutes may not seem like much, but to physicists working on the ALPHA project at the CERN physics complex near Geneva, 1000 seconds is nearly four orders of magnitude better than has ever been achieved before in capturing and holding onto antimatter atoms.

In a paper published in arXiv, a team of researchers studying the properties of antimatter, described a process whereby they were able to confine antihydrogen atoms for just that long, paving the way for new experiments that could demonstrate properties of antimatter that, until now, have been largely speculation.

The process works by cooling the antiprotons that when combined with positrons, are used to make the antihydrogen, which reduces the energy in the resulting antimatter and allows for more of it to be confined in a magnetic trap, and then held there in a cloud for a period of time.

One of the big questions in physics is whether antihydrogen atoms occupy the same energy levels as hydrogen; others want to know how it reacts to gravity, as some have speculated that antihydrogen might actually fall up, or behave in other unexpected ways. The experiments going on at CERN might just answer both those questions, and more.

At any rate, in the experiment, the researchers were able to trap 309 antihydrogen atoms, up from the previous best of just 38, which means the team is learning to both capture more of them and to hold on to them longer before collisions with various trace gasses causes them to be annihilated, or in some cases to become energized enough to escape the magnetic field.

Up next for the ALPHA team are plans to cool a small bunch of antihydrogen atoms in such a way as to allow them to watch as it either rises or falls due to gravity, thus answering one of the more exciting questions regarding antimatter, in perhaps just the next few months.

Within the next few months, the ALPHA team plans to trap another "blob" of antihydrogen, cool it down, throw it in the air and watch which way it falls. Because it's been cooled into a blob, the most likely outcome is down, whereby the laws of physics remain.

It could be the key to unlocking the door to another anti-gravity universe hidden within our own. It may also explain why the Universe's expansion is accelerating, which has always been difficult because everything within the Universe should be gravitationally attracted towards everything else.

A futuristic experiment sounding like something out of a scifi novel, that will hunt for antimatter galaxies and signs of dark matter, was nearly cancelled but is finally poised to voyage into orbit aboard the next-to-last space shuttle mission.

The $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a more than 15,000-pound (6,900-kilogram) device searching for cosmic- rays — high-energy charged particles from outer space — will ride up to the International Space Station on the shuttle Endeavour sometime this month (May).

The instrument will employ a nearly 4,200-pound (1,900 kg) permanent magnet to generate a strong, uniform magnetic field more than 3,000 times more intense than Earth's. This deflects cosmic rays so that a battery of detectors can analyze their properties, such as charge and velocity, and beam their findings to mission control.

When NASA launches the experiment, Sam Ting, Principal Investigator for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 experiment, hopes that it will provide data that proves the existence of parallel universes that are composed of anti-matter. Discoveries could verify theories and answer basic questions regarding how the Universe formed.

According to Ting, the experiment is already accruing data as it awaits its launch date. Scheduled to fly aboard the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour, STS-134, AMS-02 will search through cosmic rays for exotic particles, antimatter and dark matter. The experiment will be mounted to the outside of the International Space Station (ISS) and will require no spacewalks to attach.

While Ting has certain things that he hopes to discover, he believes that the most exciting questions are those that scientists don't even know to ask yet.

The particles that the 7.5 ton experiment is currently registering have had some of their qualities removed by the abrasive nature of Earth’s atmosphere. This problem will be solved when the AMS-02 is delivered to its new home on the space station’s S3 truss assembly. From its high vantage point it is hoped that the experiment will open new windows into particle physics and cause a revolution in our understanding of the Universe.

Ting hopes that AMS-02 will provide data that proves the existence of parallel universes that are composed of anti-matter. It is also hoped that the experiment will also discover particles that contain magnetic and electric particles that are exactly the opposite of ordinary particles.

Discoveries could verify theories and answer basic questions regarding how the Universe formed, such as that of Burt Ovrut, professor of theoretical high energy physics at the University of Pennsylvania and  pioneer of the use of M-theory to explain the Big Bang without the presence of a singularity. Ovrut and colleagues imagine two branes, universes like ours, separated by a tiny gap as tiny as 10-32 meters. There would be no communication between the two universes except for our parallel sister universe's gravitational pull, which could cross the tiny gap.

Orvut's theory could explain the effect of dark matter where areas of the Universe are heavier than they should be given everything that's present. With Ovrut's theory, the nagging problems surrounding the Big Bang (beginning from what, and caused how?) are replaced by an eternal cosmic cycle where dark energy is no longer a mysterious, unknown quantity, but rather the very extra gravitational force that drives the universe to universe (brane-brane) interaction.

Up until AMS-02, mankind’s understanding of cosmic rays has been limited to measuring light gathered in telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

The AMS-02 P.I. is also hoping to find out what dark matter is made of. This material is believed to be the “glue” that holds the Universe together. Mankind’s understanding of cosmic rays has been limited to measuring light gathered in telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). This experiment will be the first time that charged particles can be studied in the cold vacuum of space –- away from the distorting influence of Earth’s opaque atmosphere.

The Daily Galaxy via  and arXiv:1104.4982v1

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