Researchers involved in the ALPHA experiment at Switzerland's CERN complex announced yesterday (June 5) that they have succeeded in using the facility's antiproton decelerator to trap antimatter atoms for 1,000 seconds - or just over 16 minutes. This was reportedly enough time to begin studying their properties in detail, which has been the goal of ALPHA since the project began in 2005.

The announcement was made in a paper published online, in the journal Nature Physics. The scientists reported that they have studied approximately 300 of the trapped antihydrogen atoms - the hydrogen atom is one of the best-understood in the field of physics.

According the the Big Bang theory, when the universe was created, so were equal amounts of matter and antimatter. While matter is now everywhere in our universe, antimatter is scarce, and projects such as ALPHA are trying to figure out why.

Using microwave spectroscopy, the researchers plan to map the structure of the antihydrogen atoms, and compare it to that of hydrogen atoms. This will involve illuminating the anti-atoms with microwaves, and observing if they absorb the same frequencies as their matter counterparts. Any differences should be easily detectable, and could lead to a better understanding of the nature of antimatter.

Being able to keep the anti-atoms trapped for such a relatively long period should also allow them time to relax into their ground state. This, in turn, should allow the team to make precise measurements needed in order to study a symmetry called CPT. According to the theory, "a particle moving forward through time in our universe should be indistinguishable from an antiparticle moving backwards through time in a mirror universe." While this is thought to be a rule followed by nature, it may in fact turn out not to be the case.

"Any hint of CPT symmetry breaking would require a serious rethink of our understanding of nature," said ALPHA spokesperson Jeffrey Hangst. "But half of the universe has gone missing, so some kind of rethink is apparently on the agenda. "