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New physics experiment focuses on antimatter enigma

Unraveling one of the great enigmas of the visible universe, why it is made up largely of matter, will be the target of a ground-breaking research project.
/ Source: Reuters

Unraveling one of the great enigmas of the visible universe, why it is made up largely of matter, will be the target of a ground-breaking research project that was inaugurated on Wednesday during a meeting of leading physicists from eight countries.

The program will aim to find out why there is so little left of the antimatter that is believed to have been present in equal quantities at the big bang, 13.7 billion years ago, but has almost entirely disappeared since then.

Europe's CERN particle physics research center said the program would be conducted with a new "Extra Low Energy Antiproton Ring," dubbed ELENA, which will begin delivering large numbers of tiny antiprotons by 2016.

Attending this week's meeting at CERN, which is leading the project to begin in 2013 with the ring's installation, are scientists from Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden and the United States.

"This is a big step forward for antimatter physics," said Walter Oelert, an expert at CERN, which is also the home of the Large Hadron Collider.

Mutual destruction
Antimatter was discovered in 1932 after decades of theorizing, and was quickly absorbed into science fiction with its capacity to destroy any ordinary matter it touches.

The matter is converted into pure energy, a fact that has led to speculation that such reactions could fuel ultra-fast spacecraft for interstellar travel or be adapted for military use as a trigger for nuclear weapons.

Antimatter has already been used in cancer treatments, some of which have been developed at CERN, but spokesman James Gillies said ELENA would focus on pure physics.

One of the prime questions facing researchers is why matter and antimatter did not destroy each other completely at the time of the big bang, and why matter came out on top.

Low-cost project
Gillies said ELENA was a low-cost project funded out of the 20-nation center's regular budget but would provide researchers with far more antiprotons than had been possible with earlier installations.

Project head Stephan Maury said ELENA, a small decelerator ring to be housed alongside its existing but much less efficient antiproton decelerator, or AD, would deliver the anti-particles "at the lowest energies ever reached."

From the AD, in operation since the early 1990s, the antiprotons must be slowed down by passing them through a series of foil filters, a process that leads to the loss of 99.9 percent before they reach the experiments.

The new ring through which they will travel will slow them down to under one-50th of the energy of the AD, trapping up to 50 percent of the particles or more.

Oelet said this would not only greatly enhance the research potential of current experiments at CERN but would also make it much easier to start a wider range of tests on the make-up and behavior of antimatter.

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