"We can now start to measure the structure of anti-hydrogen," said Hangst. "We can do a measurement now even with a few atoms."
Alpha experiment physicists have captured a total of 300 atoms, one at a time, and are working hard to increase the rate of capture, said Hangst. The experiment mixes positrons — the antimatter equivalent of electrons — with anti-protons from Cern's Antiproton Decelerator to create the anti-hydrogen.
When first created, anti-hydrogen atoms are unstable due to their high-energy state, and would be annihilated if they came into contact with ordinary matter, said Hangst. Physicists get round the the initial high instability by capturing the antimatter atoms in a vacuum.
The antimatter is held in an electromagnetic field by superconducting magnets and cooled to a maximum temperature of 0.5° above absolute zero. This puts the anti-hydrogen in its ground state, the minimal energy configuration for any atom. This increases the stability of the particle by bringing the orbit of the anti-electron closer to the anti-proton, said Hangst.
In the short term, physicists hope to perform a number of experiments. One experiment, which Hangst described as "simple and elegant", involves shining microwaves at the right frequency to flip the antimatter from one magnetic polarity to another.
This will be a resonant interaction. If we can deliver that, we will have done the first internal probe of antimatter.– Jeffrey Hangst
"This will be a resonant interaction," said Hangst. "If we can deliver that, we will have done the first internal probe of antimatter."
The anti-hydrogen atom, when hit with the right microwave frequency, will escape the trap. Physicists can then detect when the antimatter is annihilated, and draw conclusions about its structure.
The experiment will test if anti-hydrogen behaves in the same way as hydrogen, which a group of theories about how the universe works called the Standard Model predicts should happen.
"If there's a difference [in behaviour], then something has been overlooked in the Standard Model," said Hangst. Moreover, capturing and holding antimatter for 16 minutes will allow physicists in the long term to study the effects of gravity on anti-hydrogen, he said.
In addition, allowing the particles to relax into a ground state will allow physicists to study CPT (charge, parity, time) symmetry. CPT symmetry thought experiments involve: swapping the charges of particles; swapping the parity, which is like looking at the the particle in a three-dimensional mirror; and reversing the flow of time.
Although a highly successful and productive model, CPT symmetry cannot explain why the observed universe is almost entirely matter. The theory says instead that roughly equal amounts of matter and antimatter should have been created at the Big Bang, a starting state that could not have evolved to today's universe under our current understanding of physics.
Scientists at Cern announced in November that they had managed to trap antimatter.