Feeds

Planes in thunderstorms cop gamma ray bursts

Only little ones, fortunately

Security for virtualized datacentres

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. ®

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
America's super-secret X-37B plane returns to Earth after nearly TWO YEARS aloft
674 days in space for US Air Force's mystery orbital vehicle
'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
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.