by Clara Moskowitz, Senior Writer
Date: 05 March 2010 Time: 05:20 PM ET
Scientists have created a never-before seen type of exotic matter that is thought to have been present at the earliest stages of the universe, right after the Big Bang.
The new matter is a particularly weird form of antimatter, which is like a mirror-image of regular matter. Every normal particle is thought to have an antimatter partner, and if the two come into contact, they annihilate.
The recent feat of matter-tinkering was accomplished by smashing charged gold atoms at each other at super-high speeds in a particle accelerator called the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at the U.S. Department of Energy?s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y.
Among the many particles that resulted from this crash were bizarre objects called anti-hypertritons. Not only are these things antimatter, but they’re also what’s called strange matter. Where normal atomic nuclei are made of protons and neutrons (which are made of “up” quarks and “down” quarks), strange nuclei also have so-called Lambda particles that contain another flavor of quark called “strange” as well. These Lambda particles orbit around the protons and neutrons.
If all that is a little much to straighten out, just think of anti-hypertritons as several kinds of weird. Though they normally don’t exist on Earth, these particles may be hiding in the universe in very hot, dense places like the centers of some stars, and most likely were around when the universe was extremely young and energetic, and all the matter was packed into a very small, sweltering space.
“This is the first time they?ve ever been created in a laboratory or a situation where they can be studied,” said researcher Carl Gagliardi of Texas A&M University. “We don?t have anti-nuclei sitting around on a shelf that we can use to put anti-strangeness into. Only a few anti-nuclei have been observed so far.”
These particles weren’t around for too long, though ? in fact, they didn’t last long enough to collide with normal matter and annihilate. Instead they just decayed after a fraction of a billionth of a second.
“That sounds like a really short time, but in fact on the nuclear clock it’s actually a long time,” Gagliardi told SPACE.com. “In that fraction of a billionth of a second that Lambda particle has already gone around the nucleus as many times as the Earth has gone around the sun since the solar system was created.”