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Antimatter breakthrough could help scientists unravel Big Bang mystery

Antimatter research took a significant step forward when scientists for the first time created and briefly corraled antihydrogen. The experiment could help scientists probe why the universe has less antimatter than prevailing theories suggest it should.

By Staff writer / November 18, 2010

Untrapped antihydrogen atoms annihilate on the inner surface of a trap in this photo taken by the ALPHA annihilation detector at CERN. Scientists at CERN, the world's biggest physics lab, said they have achieved a breakthrough in the hunt for antimatter.

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In a feat akin to capturing lightning in a bottle, physicists have created and for the first time briefly captured antihydrogen, the antimatter counterpart to the simple hydrogen atom.

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For more than 20 years, physicists have been looking for ways to create and study antihydrogen as a way to gain insights into processes that allowed the universe to evolve from a hot, roiling soup of subatomic particles shortly after the Big Bang some 13.6 billion years ago into the cooler collection of planets, stars, and galaxies astronomers observe today.

The experiments yielding the result represent an important step toward designing tools that will create and maintain large numbers of these antimatter atoms long enough for scientists to study them in detail.

"Being able to study these particles brings us closer to understanding the composition of antimatter and the physical properties of our universe," says Paul Nolan, a physicist at the University of Liverpool in Britain and a member of the team reporting the results in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

The experiments were conducted at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, located outside Geneva along the Swiss-French border.

What is antimatter?

Like a hydrogen atom, which consists of an electron orbiting a single proton, antihydrogen is made up of two particles – a positron and an antiprotons, the antimatter counterparts to electrons and protons.

The particles are virtually identical in every way, except for two properties, one of which is their electrical charge. An electron carries a negative electrical charge, while the positron carries a positive charge. A proton carries a positive charge, while an antiproton carries a negative charge.

Positrons and antiprotons form in a range of processes in the cosmos. For instance, positrons form as a byproduct of collisions between cosmic rays and matter in clouds of dust and gas between stars.

But they trend to vanish quickly; when matter and antimatter meet, they annihilate each other in a sudden release of energy.

The Big Bang mystery

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