Feeds

Planes in thunderstorms cop gamma ray bursts

Only little ones, fortunately

Intelligent flash storage arrays

It's long been known that flying exposes people to more cosmic rays than land-lubbers, but new research suggests another source of airborne irradiation: high-energy “dark lightning” that gives rise to gamma radiation.

Florida Institute of Technology researcher Joseph Dwyer outlined the idea at a meeting of the European Geosciences Union in Vienna recently, with the comforting news that such bursts don't produce enough radiation to be dangerous.

Whereas normal lightning is caused by a relatively slow movement of electrons, leading to a charge build-up that's sufficient to break down the insulating properties of air, the “dark lightning” is released by much higher-energy electrons, Dwyer told LiveScience.

The high-energy electrons give rise to gamma radiation when they collide with air particles, Dwyer says, in turn creating new electron/positron pairs that keep the cycle going with further collisions. However, the large amounts of energy released each time mean the cycle is short, and the electric fields “can collapse in a few tens of microseconds”.

Dwyer's model suggests that at 40,000 feet (about 12,000 metres) – near the tops of thunderstorms – radiation doses would be equivalent to a person's normal annual background radiation. In the middle of a storm, at about 16,000 feet (about 5,000 metres) the dose would be much higher.

However, these are conditions that airline pilots routinely avoid unless it's impossible to do so, and a passenger would only get a high dose if they were in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. He told LiveScience that doses “never seem to reach truly dangerous levels”.

Discovery notes that the National Science Foundation is working on an armoured plane to fly through thunderstorms, which could carry instruments to get an accurate fix on gamma radiation released by dark lightning. ®

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

More from The Register

next story
GRAV WAVE DRAMA: 'Big Bang echo' may have been grit on the scanner – boffins
Exit Planet Dust on faster-than-light expansion of universe
Mine Bitcoins with PENCIL and PAPER
Forget Sudoku, crunch SHA-256 algos
SpaceX Dragon cargo truck flies 3D printer to ISS: Clawdown in 3, 2...
Craft berths at space station with supplies, experiments, toys
NASA rover Curiosity drills HOLE in MARS 'GOLF COURSE'
Joins 'traffic light' and perfect stony sphere on the Red Planet
'This BITE MARK is a SMOKING GUN': Boffins probe ancient assault
Tooth embedded in thigh bone may tell who pulled the trigger
DOLPHINS SMELL MAGNETS – did we hear that right, boffins?
Xavier's School for Gifted Magnetotaceans
Big dinosaur wowed females with its ENORMOUS HOOTER
That's right, Doris, I've got biggest snout in the prehistoric world
Japanese volcano eruption reportedly leaves 31 people presumed dead
Hopes fade of finding survivors on Mount Ontake
That glass of water you just drank? It was OLDER than the SUN
One MEELLION years older. Some of it anyway
prev story

Whitepapers

A strategic approach to identity relationship management
ForgeRock commissioned Forrester to evaluate companies’ IAM practices and requirements when it comes to customer-facing scenarios versus employee-facing ones.
Storage capacity and performance optimization at Mizuno USA
Mizuno USA turn to Tegile storage technology to solve both their SAN and backup issues.
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?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.