The Riddle of Anti-Matter – PREVIEW

An international race is picking up speed… to see our universe for what it really is… and how it came to be. According to standard theory, the universe emerged from the explosive contact between subatomic particles of opposite charge. Scientists are now focusing their most powerful technologies on an effort to figure out how this happened.

Modern theories of the universe hang on the question: how did matter as we know it survive? And what happened to its birth twin… its opposite… a mysterious substance known as anti-matter?

A crew of astronauts is making its way to a launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida… they’ll enter the space shuttle Endeavour… for the 134th, and second to the last, flight of the space shuttle.

Little noticed in the publicity surrounding the close of this storied program… is the cargo bolted into Endeavour’s hold. It’s a science instrument that some hope will become one of the most important scientific contributions of human space flight.

It’s a kind of telescope… though it will not return dazzling images of cosmic realms long hidden from view… the distant corners of the universe… or the hidden structure of black holes and exploding stars.

At the heart of the AMS is a large superconducting magnet designed to operate in the pristine environment of space. The promise surrounding this device is that it will enable scientists to look at the universe in a completely new way.

Most telescopes are designed to capture photons… so-called neutral particles reflected or emitted by objects such as stars or galaxies. AMS will capture something different… exotic particles and atoms that are endowed with an electrical charge. Among these are a theoretical dark matter particle called a neutralino.

Then there are the strangelets… a type of quark that could amount to a whole new form of matter.

The instrument is tuned to capture “cosmic rays” at high energy… hurled out by supernova explosions or the turbulent regions surrounding black holes.

And there are high hopes that it will capture particles of antimatter… from a very early time that remains shrouded in mystery.

According to current theory, within the first billionth of a second, the universe generated a flood of elementary particles of opposite charge… in equal amounts.

Matter and antimatter… emerged in pairs that immediately annihilated each other… setting the universe ablaze in light.

The universe cooled and stopped producing the pairs. But when the dust settled… a tiny amount of matter… about one particle in a billion… managed to survive the mass annihilation.

That tiny amount went on to form the universe we can see… all the light emitting gas, dust, stars, galaxies… and planets.

This period in which atoms formed, called nucleosynthesis, is a cornerstone of the big bang theory and is well understood. The micro-moments before, known as baryogenesis, represents one of the biggest gaps in modern cosmology.

Somehow the seemingly equal pairing of matter and antimatter broke down… either because conditions present in the universe at the time, or their inherent properties, favored matter.

To be sure, antimatter does exist in our universe today. The Fermi gamma ray space telescope spotted a giant plume of antimatter extending out from the center of our galaxy… most likely created by the acceleration of particles around a supermassive black hole.

The same telescope picked up signs of antimatter created by lightning strikes in giant thunderstorms in Earth’s atmosphere.

Scientists have long known how to create antimatter artificially in physics labs… in the superhot environments created by crashing atoms together at nearly the speed of light.

Here is one of the biggest and most enduring mysteries in science… why do we live in a matter-dominated universe? What process caused matter to survive… and anti-matter to all but disappear?

Flattr this!