By Robert Evans
GENEVA (Reuters) - Unraveling one of the great enigmas of the visible universe, why it is made up largely of matter, will be the target of a ground-breaking research project kicked off on Wednesday at a meeting of leading physicists from eight countries.
More precisely, the program will aim to find why there is so little left of the anti-matter believed to have been present in equal quantities at the "Big Bang" 13.7 billion years ago but which then mysteriously disappeared, or all but.
The CERN particle physics research center said the program would be conducted with a new "Extra Low Energy Antiproton Ring," dubbed ELENA, which will begin delivering large numbers of tiny anti-proton particles by 2016.
Attending this week's meeting at CERN, which is leading the project to begin in 2013 with the ring's installation, are scientists from Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden and the United States.
"This is a big step forward for anti-matter physics," said Walter Oelert, pioneer expert at CERN -- home to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) "Big Bang" machine -- which said last week researchers had tracked particles traveling faster than light.
Anti-matter was discovered in 1932 after decades of theorizing, and was quickly absorbed into science fiction with its capacity to destroy any ordinary matter it touches.
The matter is converted into instant energy, a fact that has led to speculation that such reactions could fuel ultra-fast spacecraft for inter-stellar travel or be adapted for military use as a trigger for nuclear weapons.
Anti-matter -- matter with negative gravity -- has already been used in cancer treatments, some developed at CERN, but spokesman James Gillies said ELENA would focus on pure physics.
One of the prime questions facing researchers is why matter and anti-matter did not destroy each other at the time of the Big Bang, making creation of the universe and the emergence of life impossible, and why matter came out on top.
Gillies said ELENA was a low-cost project funded out of the 20-nation centre's regular budget but would provide researchers with far more anti-protons than had been possible with earlier installations.
Project head Stephan Maury said ELENA, a small declerator ring to be housed alongside its existing but much less efficient anti-proton decelerator (AD), would deliver the anti-particles "at the lowest energies ever reached."
From the AD, in operation since the early 1990s, the anti-protons must be slowed down by passing them through a series of foil filters, a process that leads to the loss of 99.9 percent before they reach the experiments.
The new ring through which they will travel will slow them down to under one 50th of the energy of the AD, trapping up to 50 percent of the particles or more.
Oelet said this would not only greatly enhance the research potential of current experiments at CERN but would also make it much easier to start a wider range of tests on the make-up and behavior of anti-matter.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)