CERN’s ALPHA experiment measures charge of antihydrogen
In a paper published in the journal Nature Communications today, the ALPHA experiment at CERN's Antiproton Decelerator (AD) reports a measurement of the electric charge of antihydrogen atoms, finding it to be compatible with zero to eight decimal places. Although this result comes as no surprise, since hydrogen atoms are electrically neutral, it is the first time that the charge of an antiatom has been measured to high precision.
Antiparticles should be identical to matter particles except for the sign of their electric charge. So while the hydrogen atom is made up of a proton with charge +1 and an electron with charge -1, the antihydrogen atom consists of a charge -1 antiproton and a charge +1 positron. We know, however, that matter and antimatter are not exact opposites – nature seems to have a one-part in 10 billion preference for matter over antimatter, so it is important to measure the properties of antimatter to great precision: the principal goal of CERN’s AD experiments. ALPHA achieves this by using a complex system of particle traps that allow antihydrogen atoms to be produced and stored for long enough periods to study in detail. Understanding matter antimatter asymmetry is one of the greatest challenges in physics today. Any detectable difference between matter and antimatter could help solve the mystery and open a window to new physics.
To measure the charge of antihydrogen, the ALPHA experiment studied the trajectories of antihydrogen atoms released from the trap in the presence of an electric field. If the antihydrogen atoms had an electric charge, the field would deflect them, whereas neutral atoms would be undeflected. The result, based on 386 recorded events, gives a value of the antihydrogen electric charge as (-1.3±1.1±0.4) × 10-8, the plus or minus numbers representing statistical and systematic uncertainties on the measurement.
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