Eighteen examples of the heaviest antiparticle ever found, the nucleus of antihelium-4, have been made in the STAR experiment at RHIC, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at the U.S. Department of Energy‘s Brookhaven National Laboratory. “The STAR experiment is uniquely capable of finding antihelium-4,” says the STAR experiment’s spokesperson, Nu Xu, of the Nuclear Science Division (NSD) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). “STAR already holds the record for massive antiparticles, last year having identified the anti-hypertriton, which contains three constituent antiparticles. With four antinucleons, antihelium-4 is produced at a rate a thousand times lower yet. To identify the 18 examples required sifting through the debris of a billion gold-gold collisions.”
Collisions of energetic gold nuclei inside STAR briefly recreate conditions in the hot, dense early universe only millionths of a second after the big bang. Since equal amounts of matter and antimatter were created in the big bang they should have completely annihilated one another, but for reasons still not understood, only ordinary matter seems to have survived. Today this excess matter forms all of the visible universe we know.
Roughly equal amounts of matter and antimatter are also produced in heavy-ion (gold nuclei) collisions at RHIC. The resulting fireballs expand and cool quickly, so the antimatter can avoid annihilation long enough to be detected in the Time Projection Chamber at the heart of STAR.
Ordinary nuclei of helium atoms consist of two protons and two neutrons. Called alpha particles when emitted in radioactive decays, they were found in this form by Ernest Rutherford well over a century ago. The nucleus of antihelium-4 (the anti-alpha) contains two antiprotons bound with two antineutrons.
The most common antiparticles are generally the least massive, because it takes less energy to create them. Carl Anderson was the first to find an antiparticle, the antielectron (positron), in cosmic ray debris 1932. The antiproton (the nucleus of antihydrogen) and the antineutron were created at Berkeley Lab’s Bevatron in the 1950s. Antideuteron nuclei (“anti-heavy-hydrogen,” made of an antiproton and an antineutron) were created in accelerators at Brookhaven and CERN in the 1960s.
Each extra nucleon (called a baryon) increases the particle’s baryon number, and in the STAR collisions every increase in baryon number decreases the rate of yield roughly a thousand times. The nuclei of the antihelium isotope with only one neutron (antihelium-3) has been made in accelerators since 1970; the STAR experiment produces many of these antiparticles, having baryon number 3. The antihelium nucleus with baryon number 4, just announced by STAR based on 16 examples identified in 2010 and two examples from an earlier run, contains the most nucleons of any antiparticle ever detected.
“It’s likely that antihelium will be the heaviest antiparticle seen in an accelerator for some time to come,” says STAR Collaboration member Xiangming Sun of Berkeley Lab’s NSD. “After antihelium the next stable antimatter nucleus would be antilithium, and the production rate for antilithium in an accelerator is expected to be well over two million times less than for antihelium.”
NSD’s Maxim Naglis adds, “Finding even one example of antilithium would be a stroke of luck, and would probably require a breakthrough in accelerator technology.”
If antihelium made by accelerators is rare, and heavier antiparticles rarer still, what of searching for these particles in space? The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) experiment, scheduled to be launched on one of the last space-shuttle missions to the International Space Station, is an instrument designed to do just that. A principal part of its mission is to hunt for distant galaxies made entirely of antimatter.
“Collisions among cosmic rays near Earth can produce antimatter particles, but the odds of these collisions producing an intact antihelium nucleus are so vanishingly small that finding even one would strongly suggest that it had drifted to Earth from a distant region of the universe dominated by antimatter,” explains Hans Georg Ritter of Berkeley Lab’s NSD. “Antimatter doesn’t look any different from ordinary matter, but AMS finding just one antihelium nucleus would suggest that some of the galaxies we see are antimatter galaxies.”
Meanwhile the STAR experiment at RHIC, which has shown that antihelium does indeed exist, is likely to hold the world record for finding the heaviest particle of antimatter for the foreseeable future.