A CERN control room. (Photo : REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)
Could anti-gravity be the next science fiction technology we tackle? A group of researchers working at Cern in Switzerland seem to think so.
The scientists are currently experimenting with antimatter as a possible means to create an anti-gravity propulsion system. Antimatter particles act as a reverse to regular matter, holding an equal but opposite electric charge. Scientists are still unsure how antimatter would respond to gravity, but the leading notion is that it may "fall up" instead of down.
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Cern's "Alpha" experiment may be the next step towards confirming that idea. Alpha stands for the Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus, and the device is designed to trap antimatter "atoms" for study. The "antihydrogen" mentioned in the acronym is an atom composed of the opposite of hydrogen's' proton and electron: an antiproton and positron.
In 2011, Alpha researchers were able to trap antihydrogen atoms for 1,000 seconds; and earlier this year, they've gone back to that data to test how the antimatter responds to gravity.
"In the course of all the experiments, we release [the antihydrogen atoms] and look for their annihilation," stated Jeffrey Hangst, a spokesperson for the experiment. "We've gone through those data to see if we can see any influence of gravity on the positions at which they annihilate - looking for atoms to fall for the short amount of time they exist before they hit the wall."
According to their numbers, it appears the antimatter was less than 110 times more susceptible to gravity than matter, and less than 65 times that strength in the opposite direction.
Unfortunately, while the data was very interesting, it is also inconclusive. However, the Alpha team is optimistic that it may lead to more definitive research in the future.
"It's not a very interesting band yet but it's the first time that anyone has even been able to talk about doing this," said Hangst.
"We actually have a machine that can address this question, that's what's exciting for us here, and we know how to get from here to the interesting regime. We have a lot of options for studying antimatter and this is a new one that has a future."