Can Antimatter Defy Gravity? Scientists Plan Experiment To Find Out

By Nina Sen , Apr 30, 2013 02:37 PM EDT
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Dark-matter filaments, such as the one bridging the galaxy clusters Abell 222 and Abell 223, are predicted to contain more than half of all matter in the Universe.<br /> (Photo : Jörg Dietrich, University of Michigan/University Observatory Munich/Via Nature)

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley are devising an experiment to see if antimatter can resist gravity's pull.

The question posed: Could antimatter fall upward — exhibit anti-gravity — or does it just fall downward at a different rate?

"I think it's a neat question which should be settled experimentally. The great measurement everybody dreams of making is, 'does antimatter by some miracle fall upward rather than downward?' We think in the next couple years we'll be able to test that," Fajans told U.S. News and World Report.

Antimatter is essentially a mirror image of ordinary matter with an opposite electric charge. When an atom of normal matter meets its antimatter counterpart, the two immediately destroy each other in a flash of light. According to the Big Bang Theory, equal amounts of matter and antimatter were created when the universe was first born.

Researchers have theorized that antimatter could have properties very opposite to normal matter, meaning it could be able to defy gravity by falling up. However, antimatter is a very rare commodity in nature and has only been made in a lab. The antimatter is stored in a magnetic trap and no one has looked to see which way it falls when it's dropped.

Joel Fajans, UC Berkeley professor of physics and and fellow physics professor Jonathan Wurtele employed data from the Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus (ALPHA) at CERN to devise an experiment. The experiment creates antihydrogen atoms, which are stored and studied for a few seconds in the magnetic trap. Afterward, however, the trap is turned off and the atoms fall out. By analyzing which direction antihydrogen fell out of the trap, the researchers say could determine if gravity pulled on antihydrogen differently than on hydrogen.

If antimatter did fall upward, it would dispute the theory that dark matter in our universe is significant in explaining some of the basic questions of life.

"One of the most important discoveries in theoretical physics over the last 20 years is the recognition that we need to have dark energy and dark matter in the universe, prompted by experimental observations that don't make any sense without them. But we haven't had any direct measure of dark matter or dark energy yet, and it's getting to be embarrassing at this point," Fajans added.

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