Thursday, November 18, 2010

Antimatter atoms produced and trapped at CERN



Antimatter atoms produced and trapped at CERN

This press release is available in French at end of story.

Geneva, 17 November 2011. The ALPHA experiment at CERN has taken an important step forward in developing techniques to understand one of the Universe's open questions: is there a difference between matter and antimatter? In a paper published in Nature today, the collaboration shows that it has successfully produced and trapped atoms of antihydrogen. This development opens the path to new ways of making detailed measurements of antihydrogen, which will in turn allow scientists to compare matter and antimatter.

Antimatter – or the lack of it – remains one of the biggest mysteries of science. Matter and its counterpart are identical except for opposite charge, and they annihilate when they meet. At the Big Bang, matter and antimatter should have been produced in equal amounts. However, we know that our world is made up of matter: antimatter seems to have disappeared. To find out what has happened to it, scientists employ a range of methods to investigate whether a tiny difference in the properties of matter and antimatter could point towards an explanation.

One of these methods is to take one of the best-known systems in physics, the hydrogen atom, which is made of one proton and one electron, and check whether its antimatter counterpart, antihydrogen, consisting of an antiproton and a positron, behaves in the same way. CERN is the only laboratory in the world with a dedicated low-energy antiproton facility where this research can be carried out.

The antihydrogen programme goes back a long way. In 1995, the first nine atoms of man-made antihydrogen were produced at CERN. Then, in 2002, the ATHENA and ATRAP experiments showed that it was possible to produce antihydrogen in large quantities, opening up the possibility of conducting detailed studies. The new result from ALPHA is the latest step in this journey.

Antihydrogen atoms are produced in a vacuum at CERN, but are nevertheless surrounded by normal matter. Because matter and antimatter annihilate when they meet, the antihydrogen atoms have a very short life expectancy. This can be extended, however, by using strong and complex magnetic fields to trap them and thus prevent them from coming into contact with matter. The ALPHA experiment has shown that it is possible to hold on to atoms of antihydrogen in this way for about a tenth of a second: easily long enough to study them. Of the many thousands of antiatoms the experiment has created, ALPHA's latest paper reports that 38 have been trapped for long enough to study.

"For reasons that no one yet understands, nature ruled out antimatter. It is thus very rewarding, and a bit overwhelming, to look at the ALPHA device and know that it contains stable, neutral atoms of antimatter," said Jeffrey Hangst of Aarhus University, Denmark, spokesman of the ALPHA collaboration. "This inspires us to work that much harder to see if antimatter holds some secret."

In another recent development in CERN's antimatter programme, the ASACUSA experiment has demonstrated a new technique for producing antihydrogen atoms. In a paper soon to appear in Physical Review Letters, the collaboration reports success in producing antihydrogen in a so-called Cusp trap, an essential precursor to making a beam. ASACUSA plans to develop this technique to the point at which beams of sufficient intensity will survive for long enough to be studied.

"With two alternative methods of producing and eventually studying antihydrogen, antimatter will not be able to hide its properties from us much longer," said Yasunori Yamazaki of Japan's RIKEN research centre and a member of the ASACUSA collaboration. "There's still some way to go, but we're very happy to see how well this technique works."

"These are significant steps in antimatter research," said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer, "and an important part of the very broad research programme at CERN."

Full information about the ASACUSA approach will be made available when the paper is published.

By FRANK JORDANS, Associated Press Frank Jordans, Associated Press – Thu Nov 18, 8:03 am ET

GENEVA – Scientists claimed a breakthrough Thursday in solving one of the biggest riddles of physics, successfully trapping the first "anti-atom" in a quest to understand what happened to all the antimatter that has vanished since the Big Bang.

An international team of physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, managed to create an atom of anti-hydrogen and then hold onto it for long enough to demonstrate that it can be studied in the lab.

"For us it's a big breakthrough because it means we can take the next step, which is to try to compare matter and antimatter," the team's spokesman, American scientist Jeffrey Hangst, told The Associated Press.

"This field is 20 years old and has been making incremental progress toward exactly this all along the way," he added. "We really think that this was the most difficult step."

For decades, researchers have puzzled over why antimatter seems to have disappeared from the universe.

Theory posits that matter and antimatter were created in equal amounts at the moment of the Big Bang, which spawned the universe some 13.7 billion years ago. But while matter — defined as having mass and taking up space — went on to become the building block of everything that exists, antimatter has all but disappeared except in the lab.

Hangst and his colleagues, who included scientists from Britain, Brazil, Canada, Israel and the United States, trapped 38 anti-hydrogen for about one tenth of a second, according to a paper submitted to the respected science journal Nature.

Since their first success, the team has managed to hold the anti-atoms even longer.

"Unfortunately I can't tell you how long, because we haven't published the number yet," Hangst told the AP. "But I can tell you that it's much, much longer than a tenth of a second. Within human comprehension on a real clock."

Scientists have long been able to create individual particles of antimatter such as anti-protons, anti-neutrons and positrons — the opposite of electrons. Since 2002, they have also managed to lump these particles together to form anti-atoms, but until recently none could be trapped for long enough to study them, because atoms made of antimatter and matter annihilate each other in a burst of energy upon contact.

"It doesn't help if they disappear immediately upon their creation," said Hangst. "So the big goal has been to hold onto them."

Two teams had been competing for that goal at CERN, the world's largest physics lab best known for its $10 billion smasher, the Large Hadron Collider. The collider, built deep under the Swiss-French border, wasn't used for this experiment.

Hangst's ALPHA team got there first, beating the rival ATRAP team led by Harvard physicist Gerald Gabrielse, who nevertheless welcomed the result.

"The atoms that were trapped were not yet trapped very long and in a very usable number, but one has to crawl before you sprint," he told the AP.

Many new techniques painstakingly developed over five years of experimental trial and error preceded the successful capture of anti-hydrogen.

To trap the anti-atoms inside an electromagnetic field and to stop them from annihilating atoms, researchers had to create anti-hydrogen at temperatures less than half a degree above absolute zero.

"Think of it as a marble rolling back and forth in a bowl," said Hangst. "If the marble is rolling too fast (i.e. the anti-atom is too hot) it just goes over the edge."

Next, scientists plan to conduct basic experiments on the anti-atom, such as shining a laser onto it and seeing how it behaves, he said.

"We have a chance to make a really precise comparison between a matter system and an antimatter system," he said, "That's unique, that's never been done. That's where we're headed now."

Hangst downplayed speculation that antimatter might someday be harnessed as a source of energy, or to create a powerful weapon, an idea popularized in Dan Brown's best-selling novel "Angels and Demons."

"It would take longer than the age of the universe to make one gram of antimatter," he said, calling the process "a losing proposition because it takes much more energy to make antimatter than you get out of it."

French translation

Des atomes d'antimatière produits et capturés au CERN

Ce communiqué est disponible en anglais.

Genève, le 17 novembre 2011. L'expérience ALPHA au CERN1 vient de réaliser une avancée importante dans le développement de techniques pour comprendre l'une des énigmes de l'Univers, à savoir, ce qui différencie la matière de l'antimatière. Dans un article publié aujourd'hui dans la revue Nature, la collaboration annonce qu'elle a réussi à produire et à capturer des atomes d'antihydrogène. Cette avancée va ouvrir la voie à de nouvelles méthodes pour réaliser des mesures précises sur l'antihydrogène, et ainsi permettre aux scientifiques de comparer la matière et l'antimatière.

L'antimatière – ou plutôt l'absence d'antimatière – reste l'un des plus grands mystères de la science. La matière et l'antimatière sont identiques, mais ont une charge opposée. Elles s'annihilent au contact l'une de l'autre. Lors du big bang, matière et antimatière devraient avoir été produites en quantité égale. Or, nous savons que notre monde est constitué uniquement de matière : l'antimatière semble avoir disparu. Pour découvrir ce qu'il est advenu de l'antimatière, les scientifiques utilisent diverses méthodes qui ont pour but de déterminer si une infime différence entre les propriétés de la matière et celles de l'antimatière pourrait apporter un début d'explication.

L'une de ces méthodes consiste à prendre l'un des systèmes les mieux connus de la physique, l'atome d'hydrogène, constitué d'un proton et d'un électron, et de vérifier si son homologue dans l'antimatière, l'antihydrogène, constitué d'un antiproton et d'un positon, se comporte de la même manière. Le CERN, avec son installation pour antiprotons de basse énergie, est le seul laboratoire au monde où de telles recherches puissent être menées.

Le programme antihydrogène ne date pas d'hier. En 1995, les neufs premiers atomes d'antihydrogène produits en laboratoire l'ont été au CERN. Puis, en 2002, les expériences ATHENA et ATRAP ont montré qu'il était possible de produire de grandes quantités d'antihydrogène, et ainsi ouvert la voie à la réalisation d'études détaillées. Le nouveau résultat d'ALPHA constitue la plus récente des étapes de ce voyage.

Les atomes d'antihydrogène sont certes produits sous vide au CERN, mais ils sont entourés de matière ordinaire. La matière et l'antimatière s'annihilant au contact l'une de l'autre, ces atomes d'antihydrogène ont une espérance de vie très brève. Celle-ci peut toutefois être allongée à l'aide de champs magnétiques intenses et complexes qui permettent de capturer les atomes d'antihydrogène et ainsi d'empêcher qu'ils entrent en contact avec la matière. L'expérience ALPHA a montré qu'il est possible de conserver de cette manière des atomes d'antihydrogène pendant un dixième de seconde, un laps de temps suffisamment long pour pouvoir les étudier. Sur les milliers d'antiatomes produits par l'expérience ALPHA, 38, selon le dernier résultat, ont été capturés suffisamment longtemps pour être étudiés.

Pour des raisons que l'on ignore encore, la nature a exclu l'antimatière. Il est donc très gratifiant et assez impressionnant de savoir que le dispositif d'ALPHA contient des atomes, neutres et stables, d'antimatière, explique Jeffrey Hangst, de l'Université d'Aarhus (Danemark), et porte-parole de la collaboration ALPHA. Cela nous incite à poursuivre nos efforts pour découvrir les secrets de l'antimatière.

Toujours dans le cadre du programme antimatière du CERN, l'expérience ASACUSA a mis au point récemment une nouvelle technique pour produire des atomes d'antimatière. Dans un article qui paraîtra prochainement dans Physical Review Letters, la collaboration annonce qu'elle a réussi à produire de l'antihydrogène dans un « piège à étranglement », étape préalable indispensable en vue de la production d'un faisceau. ASACUSA envisage de développer cette technique afin de pouvoir disposer de faisceaux d'intensité suffisante et d'une durée de vie assez longue pour être étudiés.

Nous disposons désormais de deux méthodes pour produire et finalement étudier l'antihydrogène ; l'antimatière ne devrait donc pas pouvoir conserver ses secrets encore bien longtemps, estime Yasunori Yamazaki, du centre de recherche japonais RIKEN, et membre de la collaboration ASACUSA. Il reste encore du chemin à parcourir, mais nous sommes ravis de constater que cette technique fonctionne aussi bien.

Ces résultats représentent des avancées importantes pour la recherche sur l'antimatière, a déclaré le Directeur général du CERN, Rolf Heuer, et tiennent une place importante dans le vaste programme de recherches mené au CERN.


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