Does antimatter fall up? The science-fictional idea of antigravity is now being taken seriously by a number of researchers around the world. At Illinois Tech, students and faculty members have been developing a novel experimental apparatus to measure the gravitational acceleration of antimatter.
Einstein’s General Relativity, the accepted theory of gravity, predicts no difference whatsoever between the gravitational behaviors of matter and antimatter. While well-established experimentally, General Relativity has never been tested with antimatter. If antimatter is found to fall up in the gravitational field of the Earth — or even if it falls down, but at a different rate from matter — it will fundamentally change our view not only of gravity but of the nature and evolution of the Universe.
The objective of this IPRO project is to develop a novel experimental apparatus to measure the gravitational acceleration of antimatter. Achieving this objective requires a source of neutral antimatter atoms and a precision device to measure their motion under gravity. Our approach is to use muonium — a hydrogen-like atom composed of an antimuon bound to an electron. (Although the electron is matter, since the antimuon is 200 times heavier than the electron, muonium should act gravitationally like antimatter.) Muonium sources exist at a number of particle accelerator laboratories around the world. Since muonium decays on average in 2.2 microseconds, the measurement is challenging and requires extreme mechanical precision.
We will continue the development of a precision interferometer employing thin silicon-nitride gratings made at Argonne National Laboratory using nanotechnology fabrication techniques. This IPRO project started in the fall 2014 semester and has continued since then, with significant progress being made. We will build on that progress by (if possible) building gratings and characterizing their precision (and, if necessary, figure out how to improve it). We will also carry out further design and simulation studies, including finite-element analysis (FEA) of the gratings, the optical bench, and their mechanical systems, in order to understand and optimize the performance of the experiment as a whole. We will continue the design of the needed cryogenic and vacuum systems, as well as experimental studies of our infrared-laser picometer-alignment system.
Students from a variety of disciplines interested in gaining experience in designing, building and testing experimental devices and mechanisms will find that this IPRO project offers a creative, interesting and challenging experience. For example, this includes students from the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology), computer science, applied mathematics, engineering (electrical, computer, aerospace, mechanical, materials, chemical), and information technology and management.