​Anti-matter mystery solved? Scientists say spiral magnetic fields to thank for our existence

An artist's depiction of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope (FGST) in orbit.
(Photo by NASA)
Why does matter exist in the universe? It's not a simple question, but NASA's Fermi space telescope may be on its way to an answer. The instrument has detected gamma rays which could provide scientists with clues surrounding the mystery of matter.

Researchers believe the telescope's detection of the gamma rays (high-energy light) has provided the answer as to why the universe is filled with matter, instead of anti-matter.

The matter mystery has stumped scientists who believe, based on existing theories, that the Big Bang should have produced equal amounts of matter and anti-matter, which would have immediately destroyed each other, leaving nothing behind.

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But, for some unexplained reason, that didn't happen at all. Matter won the battle, and human beings exist because of it.

Tanmay Vachaspati, a professor of physics at Arizona State University, and his colleagues think they have found a clue to that mystery, believing a signal in the Fermi gamma ray data suggests an overwhelming production of matter – but not anti-matter – in the early universe.

The team claims to have identified a “twisting” of the gamma rays detected by the telescope. They believe the twisted rays are evidence of a magnetic field that has existed in the universe since less than a second after the Big Bang occurred.

The gamma rays, sensitive to the effect of a magnetic field, carried a spiral pattern imprint from the field. Analysis of the imprint and its properties showed the field is predominately left-handed.

The left-hand orientation is evidence of the overwhelming production of matter. Vachaspati and his team say that anti-matter would have produced a right-hand orientation.

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The team's findings were published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on Friday.

The discovery of the left-hand signal was actually reported by Vachaspati and his colleagues in a paper published in 2014, but the physics professor still had questions, and therefore didn't “make a big deal of it.”

"We were kind of cautious, and we didn't want to make a big deal of it, because we thought maybe the signal would go away with more data or more analysis," Vachaspati said. "And then, in [the new paper], we used more data and did other kinds of analysis. And the signal is still there."

The researchers did, however, point out that there is a 0.3 percent chance that the results aren't what they seem.

Vachaspati said that the next step is to continue to look for the signal in more Fermi telescope data.

"I think the most important part is that we're seeing a suspicious signal in the data, and then the rest is kind of one step at a time,” he said.

Launched in 2008, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope observes gamma rays from very distant sources, such as the universe's supermassive black holes.