Feeds

Scientists investigate 'dark lightning' threat to aircraft passengers

One stormy flight could give lifetime radiation dose

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup

US Navy scientists are going to rig aircraft with radiation detectors to check if a phenomenon known as dark lightning could be killing aircraft passengers.

Dark lightning is the product of the electrical activity caused by thunderstorms and produces intense bursts of omnidirectional terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs) up to half a mile wide, as electrons and positrons are forced to interact by the atmospheric disturbance such storms produce.

The recently discovered phenomenon occurs off the human visual spectrum – thus the name – and at altitudes between six and ten miles within the head of thunderstorm systems. Dark lightning may also play an important role in limiting the amount of electrostatic lightning produced by thunderstorms, but for humans the results could be deadly.

Simulations by the US Naval Research Laboratory's space science division suggest that a single flight that is hit by a TGF would give passengers and crew a lifetime's safe dose of ionizing radiation – the equivalent of hundreds of chest x-rays, thousands of flights, or tens of thousands of trips through the TSA's now defunct backscatter x-ray perv scanners.

A dark lightning strike on a 737

A simulated dark lightning strike from beneath a 737

To quantify the risk, the NRL team used the calorimeter on NASA's Fermi gamma ray space telescope to measure the energy dark lightning puts out and assess any potential risk to air travelers. This data has now been fed into a simulator looking at the effect on a Boeing 737 – and the results aren't good for the passengers.

The next stage of the research is to get instruments up into a major thunderstorm and take measurements of dark lightning in situ. In the summer the NRL will begin balloon flights into storm systems, and there are also plans for a specially-shielded aircraft to search for gamma radiation.

In the meantime, the risk to fliers is thought to be minimal. Commercial airlines avoid thunderstorms wherever possible, and the chance of accidental irradiation is unlikely to be an issue. Still, the NRL study should give a clearer idea of whether the dark lightning phenomenon is something to be seriously concerned about. ®

Boost IT visibility and business value

More from The Register

next story
China building SUPERSONIC SUBMARINE that travels in a BUBBLE
Shanghai to San Fran in two hours would be a trick, though
Our LOHAN spaceplane ballocket Kickstarter climbs through £8000
Through 25 per cent but more is needed: Get your UNIQUE rewards!
Cutting cancer rates: Data, models and a happy ending?
How surgery might be making cancer prognoses worse
Boffins ID freakish spine-smothered prehistoric critter: The CLAW gave it away
Bizarre-looking creature actually related to velvet worms
CRR-CRRRK, beep, beep: Mars space truck backs out of slippery sand trap
Curiosity finds new drilling target after course correction
SpaceX prototype rocket EXPLODES over Texas. 'Tricky' biz, says Elon Musk
No injuries or near injuries. Flight stayed in designated area
Brit balloon bod Bodnar overflies North Pole
B-64 amateur ultralight payload approaching second circumnavigation
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Scale data protection with your virtual environment
To scale at the rate of virtualization growth, data protection solutions need to adopt new capabilities and simplify current features.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
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?