Earthbound Antimatter Mystery Deepens

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More antimatter particles stream toward Earth than scientists can explain, and new research from a mountaintop observatory in central Mexico deepens the mystery by crossing off one possible source.

The Earth is constantly showered by high-energy particles from a variety of cosmic sources. Physicist Victor Hess used a balloon to provide the first evidence of the extraterrestrial nature of cosmic rays in 1912.

Since then, scientists have identified and accounted for a variety of different types, but the origin of some of these particles continues to elude experts.

The recent finding, detailed in the journal Science today (Nov. 17), concerns positrons, the antimatter complements of electrons.

High-energy particles, usually protons, traveling across the galaxy can create pairs of positrons and electrons when they interact with dust and gas in space.

In 2008, the space-based PAMELA detector measured unexpectedly high numbers of earthbound positrons. This was about 10 times what they were expecting to see, according to Zhou.

After years of work, camps coalesced around two distinct explanations, according to a statementby Michigan Technological University, which was involved in the new study.

One hypothesis suggests the particles come from nearby pulsars, rapidly spinning cores of burnt-out stars, which can whip particles like electrons and positrons to incredible speeds.

The other group posits a more exotic origin for the excess positrons, perhaps involving dark matter, an unknown yet pervasive entity that accounts for 80 percent of the universe’s mass.

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