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Nuclear scientists at CERN discover color of antimatter, hope to learn much more

ALPHA: A new era of precision for antimatter research

For the first time in history, researchers at CERN have been able to examine the spectral structure of an antimatter antihydrogen atom in full glorious color. The work promises to help reveal the similarities and, if any, substantial differences between hydrogen and its antimatter counterpart. The hydrogen atom is the best understood and measured atomic system in the universe, offering a uniquely useful source of exploration for researchers interested in antimatter. It is hoped that the work will help shed crucial light on the origins of the universe.

For their study, the CERN (formally known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research) researchers analyzed approximately 15,000 atoms of antihydrogen, and carried out a range of frequency measurements using lasers. The results are the most precise measures made concerning antihydrogen in 30 years of research.

Antimatter particles are theorized to have the same mass as their regular counterparts, but the opposite charge. Instead of possessing a negatively charged electron, that means they have a positively charged positron. Any other potential differences between regular matter and antimatter could help fill scientists in on some fundamental questions about matter’s status in the universe.

“That would have been a huge story if we had,” Professor Jeffrey Hangst, who worked on the project, told Digital Trends, regarding whether or not any differences have been discovered so far. “But we’re still not at the same level of precision that hydrogen has. We have a factor of about 500 to go before we can say that, within the limits of our current capabilities, … hydrogen and antihydrogen are the same. But this is nonetheless significant. We’re doing what matter scientists call spectroscopy: we’re measuring the shape and spectral line in antimatter for the first time. That’s huge for us.”

Hangst explained that there is no realistic chance of being able to extend the work to look at other types of antimatter atom. “That’s not in the realm of what we know to be possible today,” he said. “Antihelium, which would be the next heaviest atom, is completely out of reach. In a probabilistic sense, we could never make enough of it to hold it and carry out spectroscopy. We’re not seriously discussing this. Even something like an isotope of hydrogen is something we don’t think we have a good hope of doing.”

Nonetheless, there is plenty more work to be done in analyzing antihydrogen atoms. In particular, Hangst said the plan is to further improve the resolution at which they are currently able to analyze antihydrogen.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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