Feeds

Thunderstorms found to squirt antimatter into space

NASA sat pelted with positrons from around planet

Security for virtualized datacentres

Top NASA boffins analysing data from a gamma-ray telescope satellite in orbit above the Earth say they have discovered that thunderstorms, in addition to the various other things they do, emit "beams of antimatter" out of their tops.

"These signals are the first direct evidence that thunderstorms make antimatter particle beams," said Michael Briggs, a member of NASA's Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) team. Briggs was addressing a conference in Seattle this week.

The GBM whose readings Briggs and his colleagues have been poring over is mounted aboard the Fermi gamma-ray space telescope. Though primarily intended to peer deep into the universe to probe the various kinds of high-energy events which produce gamma rays (punchiest of all the various types of radiation to be found along the electromagnetic spectrum), Fermi has also proven handy for observing things on the Earth beneath it.

Specifically, Briggs and his chums have been using the gamma burst instrument to observe a phenomenon known as terrestrial gamma flashes (TGFs), brief bursts of intense radiation associated with lightning storms. Something on the order of 500 TGFs are thought to occur worldwide every day, but normally they pass undetected - Fermi has logged just 130 since being launched in 2008.

Quite apart from gamma ray blasts, already pretty high powered stuff, the Fermi boffins now believe that TGF events also cause thunderstorms to cough antimatter (in the form of positrons, anti-electrons) out of the upper atmosphere as well. In one particular case, a powerful thunderstorm over Zambia actually peppered the Fermi spacecraft with positrons despite the fact that Fermi was 2,800 miles away above Egypt at the time.

This might seem to be impossible, as the spacecraft's low orbit meant that it was shielded from the thunderstorm by the curvature of the Earth - the storm was well below its horizon. But the high-energy positrons belching from the top of the storm, being charged, were naturally affected by the Earth's magnetic field.

"Even though Fermi couldn't see the storm, the spacecraft nevertheless was magnetically connected to it," says Joseph Dwyer, another NASA gamma boffin. "The TGF produced high-speed electrons and positrons, which then rode up Earth's magnetic field to strike the spacecraft."

Rather than zapping out into space on a straight line like the gamma rays, the antimatter hurtled round the planet along the curving field lines and struck the orbiting Fermi. The positrons then annihilated themselves as they encountered normal matter within the satellite, and the entire mass involved was converted into more gamma rays: ones with the giveaway energy of 511,000 electron-volts, a sure sign that positrons have been annihilating themselves. These rays were of course sniffed at once by the GBM, much to the gratification of Briggs, Dwyer and their colleagues.

"The Fermi results put us a step closer to understanding how TGFs work," said Steven Cummer, also of the Fermi boffinry crew. "We still have to figure out what is special about these storms and the precise role lightning plays in the process."

There's more on the thunderstorm gamma-ray antimatter space blast discoveries here, courtesy of NASA. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

More from The Register

next story
SECRET U.S. 'SPACE WARPLANE' set to return from SPY MISSION
Robot minishuttle X-37B returns after almost 2 years in orbit
LOHAN crash lands on CNN
Overflies Die Welt en route to lively US news vid
'Utter killjoy Reg hacks have NEVER BEEN LAID', writes a fan
'Shuddit, smarty pants!' Some readers reacted badly to our last Doctor Who review ...
Experts brand LOHAN's squeaky-clean box
Phytosanitary treatment renders Vulture 2 crate fit for export
Carry On Cosmonaut: Willful Child is a poor taste Star Trek parody
Cringeworthy, crude and crass jokes abound in Steven Erikson’s sci-fi debut
White LED lies: It's great, but Nobel physics prize-winning great?
How artificial lighting could offer an artificial promise
NASA eyeballs SOLAR HEAT BOMBS, MINI-TORNADOES and NANOFLARES on Sun
Astro boffins probe fiery star's hidden depths
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Win a year’s supply of chocolate
There is no techie angle to this competition so we're not going to pretend there is, but everyone loves chocolate so who cares.
Why cloud backup?
Combining the latest advancements in disk-based backup with secure, integrated, cloud technologies offer organizations fast and assured recovery of their critical enterprise data.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Saudi Petroleum chooses Tegile storage solution
A storage solution that addresses company growth and performance for business-critical applications of caseware archive and search along with other key operational systems.