Christmas has come early for some physicists at CERN.
In what represents a major leap forward, the physicists have used a laser to measure the spectrum of light given off by antimatter.
In doing so, the team of over 50 researchers hope to solve one of the universe’s great mysteries.
When we think antimatter, we naturally think of sci-fi. I don’t need to tell the Trekkies out there that the Starship Enterprise is fueled by its very own Matter-Antimatter Warp Drive.
Jeffrey Hangst, a physicist at Aarhus University in Denmark, confirmed exactly this, telling NPR:
The first time I heard about antimatter was on Star Trek, when I was kid…I was intrigued by what it was then and kind of shocked to learn it was a real thing in physics.
Now most kids who watch sci-fi may buy a toy or two and play in the yard.
But Hangst grew up and founded a research group called ALPHA, which is devoted to studying antimatter. And it’s thanks to them that we have this breakthrough, which has just been published in the journal Nature.
OK, so how will this affect us?
Well, there is a thing called the Standard Model. It’s a well-developed and widely accepted framework that describes the particles which make up everything, and how they interact with each other.
However, there is a problem with the Standard Model. It predicts that the universe is made of equal parts matter and antimatter. We know this is wrong though, since when matter and antimatter collide, they go boom and become radiation.
So is there something wrong with the Standard Model? And why does it appear that there is more matter than antimatter in our universe? The answers to these questions are still a big mystery, and that where the ALPHA team comes in.
The current ALPHA experiment is the first step in really understanding how matter and antimatter are different. And if we can make sense of that and harness the energy produced, then antimatter-powered spacecraft will be a very real possibility.
Unfortunately, there is also a major catch to using antimatter – money. A rough estimate from NASA is that the cost of producing around 10 milligrams of the stuff (enough to get us to Mars) is around $345 million AUD. Going interstellar would require around 2 grams and would cost much, much more.
In other words, it’s a little too early to be getting excited about jumping on our antimatter-powered ships and flying to Alpha Centauri.
We should also remember that studies such as these may result in unintended breakthroughs in other areas too.
GPS, for example, was first invented as a way to track the satellites above us, and is now used to track our location on Earth. That’s great because – as Dr. Karl explained – thanks to GPS we can now get pizza delivered to us on a Friday night.
Research into antimatter may lead us down other pathways, including – but not limited to – interstellar travel.
Maybe even antimatter pizza. Whoa, dude.