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Antimatter spotted on the edge of the world

David Wroe · 17 Aug 2011, 15:42

Published: 17 Aug 2011 15:42 GMT+02:00

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The scientists have for the first time spotted the band of antimatter particles in Earth’s magnetosphere. The particles are rare because they normally are annihilated when they come into contact with regular matter, producing a burst of energy.

In theory, they could one day be used as a fuel to accelerate spacecraft to great speeds for interstellar journeys.

Physicists from the University of Siegen in North Rhine-Westphalia were part of the team that confirmed predictions that antimatter is trapped in Earth’s magnetic field in the Van Allen radiation belt. It is the largest supply of antimatter close to Earth.

“It was expected that the particles were there, but this is the first time they have been seen. Measuring them is no easy task,” Professor Manfred Simon, a physicist who was part of the team, told The Local.

The particles are antiprotons – the negatively charged antimatter twins of protons.

According to the laws of physics, matter and antimatter are always created in equal quantities. However when they come into contact, they annihilate one another in a terrific burst of energy according to Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2, which means that energy is equal to mass multiplied by the speed of light squared.

The antiprotons are produced by the collisions between particles in cosmic rays coming from the sun and from outside the solar system, and particles in Earth’s atmosphere. These high-energy collisions create showers of exotic particles, including antineutrons, some of which decay into antiprotons.

The antiprotons then accumulate in Earth’s magnetosphere at altitudes of several hundred kilometres.

The belt of antiprotons was spotted by the PAMELA experiment, a satellite launched in 2006 to study cosmic rays.

Antimatter is rare compared with matter and is very difficult to produce because it requires huge amounts of energy to do so, though tiny quantities of antimatter have been produced and captured for up to 16 minutes at the CERN facility outside Geneva.

While science fiction has popularized antimatter as a potential source of powerful fuel or weapons of mass destruction, in reality it is extremely difficult to produce or capture.

A report for the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts said that antimatter “opens up exciting options for space exploration.”

Story continues below…

“Larger supplies of antiprotons would eventually enable spacecraft capable of relativistic velocities,” the report said.

The report also proposed methods for capturing the antimatter from the magnetosphere. Professor Simon, however, was a little more sceptical.

“Certainly antimatter annihilates with normal matter and in fact this is the biggest source of antimatter around the earth, but at the moment we have no way you might control these processes.”

The team, which was led by the University of Bari in Italy but comprises scientists from several countries, reported their findings in the August issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

David Wroe (david.wroe@thelocal.de)

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Your comments about this article

16:52 August 17, 2011 by marimay
Where would one obtain an anti-matter belt? I want to be ahead of the trend...
16:54 August 17, 2011 by catjones
germans never miss a chance for taking first or full credit for team efforts. Only in the last paragraph do you read the correct order or praise. When it comes to needy self-aggrandizement, they can't be topped.
17:03 August 17, 2011 by marimay
Haha. And when things go wrong, they had nothing to do with it!
17:45 August 17, 2011 by Englishted

Where would one obtain an anti-matter belt?

At the anti- matter belt shop ,just round the corner from the it-doesn't- matter superstore.As a matter-of-fact it is not too far .
19:09 August 17, 2011 by AbhilashD
@ catjones

rubbish, mate. The Local is in Germany, so of course it will first interview the German scientists, no?
19:55 August 17, 2011 by adipk
who will responsible for such disorder if some thing going wrong. I mean if they disturb that part like they do on earth. Greenpeace must stop them.
22:00 August 17, 2011 by catjones
AbhilashD...pls read before commenting.

Englishted...you're kidding right? They're next to the anti-matter suspenders. Everyone doesn't know that.
22:32 August 17, 2011 by DOZ
Better to stick with Lithium Crystals, or at least Lithium Tablets for the commenters. Beam me up Scotty, I need to use the Porta Potty.
05:24 August 18, 2011 by jbaker
Ahh..... A bunch of Physicists speculating with their creative minds, yet governed by man made Rules and Laws. A wonderful circle they create.
07:27 August 18, 2011 by Shirazz
Good morning Globe,

First of all, I'm a big fan of space and aviation tech. I believe technology is great in many ways, and truly appreciate the progress. It saves lives, better lives and even better the world if positively used.

Interstellar space travel is also awesome,....but ...don't you think for now more serious "matters" are right here on earth to solve? Famine, wars, environment abuse, to name just a few?

Or is it that this world is too messed up to live in, so let's find a another planet to go to, through Interstellar space travel...or why not for a leisure trip on a Sunday afternoon..just because we can?

The discovery of the belt of antimatter is not an issue, but the plan to invest in it for the purpose mentioned is itself the anti matter in hand.

I'd rather see huge investments spent on saving our world....but then again, who will listen, I'm only a tiny particle in the atmosphere.
16:45 August 18, 2011 by TDSR
I hope antimatter one day be used to create fuel for interstellar space travel. Together with Phase-shift Plasma Turbine, it will be a wonderful breakthrough for mankind.
23:40 August 23, 2011 by julietuniformpapa
I think u missed, that an anti - matter catcher was installed at the ISS at ehe last mission of space shuttle endevaour.
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