Thunderstorms Shoot Beams of Antimatter Into Space. Really!

By Eliza Strickland | January 11, 2011 1:15 pm

In Greek mythology, Zeus hurled thunderbolts down from Mount Olympus whenever some uppity mortal or ravaging monster dared distract him from his carousing. New research suggests this mythological god-king would have had another weapon at his disposal as well: beams of antimatter.

Researchers working with the Fermi space telescope made the discovery while examining the gamma-ray flashes that thunderstorms are known to produce. (The multitasking Fermi can observe everything from gamma ray bursts in the most distant reaches of the universe to terrestrial phenomena.) The high-energy gamma-ray flashes are thought to be caused by the electrical fields produced during lightning storms.

The new study, presented at the ongoing meeting of the American Astronomical Society, suggests that these gamma-ray flashes create both electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons. When two of these opposing particles meet up they annihilate each other and cause another blaze of gamma rays, with a particular signature that Fermi can detect.

In a video about the findings, NASA explains that Fermi was traveling over Egypt on December 14, 2009 when it detected this signature–but the only active thunderstorm was in Zambia, too far away for Fermi to see it. The explanation: the electrons and positrons traveled along the Earth’s magnetic field lines. When the traveling positrons reached Fermi they interacted with the spacecraft’s electrons and annihiliated, creating a flash of gamma rays. Says NASA’s video: “For an instant, Fermi became a gamma-ray source, and set off its own detectors.” And there you have it: Fermi was struck by a beam of antimatter.

The BBC talked to atmospheric electricity researcher Steven Cummer, who wasn’t involved in the current research, and found him to be pretty jazzed.

“I think this is one of the most exciting discoveries in the geosciences in quite a long time – the idea that any planet has thunderstorms that can create antimatter and then launch it into space in narrow beams that can be detected by orbiting spacecraft to me sounds like something straight out of science fiction,” he said.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

  • AJAR

    Does this mean we now have a fuel source for antimatter engines?

    • http://profiles.google.com/cybervigilante Jim Mooney

       Even better – Isaac Asimov’s positronic brains for robots, who can then do all our work (oops, that’s already happened to a great degree, but didn’t work out as planned, with a twenty hour work week and universal prosperity. It seems they anticipated the science but not our horrible economic system.)

  • Oli

    “When the traveling positrons reached Fermi they interacted with the spacecraft’s electrons and annihiliated, creating a flash of gamma rays.”

    So Fermi is now a big ion?

  • Interesting

    This is very exciting! But, are we sure there are no other explanations? Can we reproduce the event in any way?

  • http://twitter.com/skormos Spencer K

    @AJAR:
    Only if we can figure out a way to contain the fuel without destroying the container!

  • Darth Vader

    If only we could aim the antimatter beams at people…

  • Mike

    The positrons did not interact with any matter between the storm and Fermi?

  • Leerf

    Dear Human Race.
    Please be very careful with antimatter.
    Xx

  • http://berander.wordpress.com Berander

    @2, Oli: *LOL*

  • Dee

    I agree with Mike; there are undoubtedly free electrons at some point along this proposed journey.

  • Random

    Well, maybe not trap the lightning. But, maybe figure out exactly what is causing it. Harness that effective and move on.

  • TMC

    @Dee and Mike:
    Why does that make you think the conclusions are wrong? I see it the other way around…sure, there were probably a lot of free electrons along the way and probably a whole bunch of positrons annihilated with them. The fact that the Fermi telescope was able to detect the positrons suggests that there were a LOT of positrons produced because they were able to survive until hitting the telescope .

    Additionally, it could have been a statistical fluke. Maybe the Fermi telescope was just in the right place at the right time and will never be able to detect lightning produced positrons ever again.

  • Merijn Vogel

    The train of thought required is amazing. I’m just guessing, but something along these lines must have happened. They detect positrons, they look for where those came from. They apparently exclused space, they excluded a direct thunderstorm, they verfied their data, tens of times. Then calculated what path a beam of positrons could be I guess. Then found a matching thunderstorm and had their source.
    Then, they dared to conclude, the positrons could come from the gamma-ray events called lightning.

    I find it totally awesome that you can conclude something like this. And, we can now also conclude that anti-matter exists in nature. Really cool, thanks for sharing this Phil.

  • Merijn Vogel

    @TMC: indeed, but I hope / assume naively that this quite extraordinary claim is based on solid evidence. I very much look forward to the follow-up on this as well.

  • Jim

    @Merijn: that is not new information. Positrons were first detected in the 1930s. And lots of radioisotopes decay by emitting a positron, so that’s been happening for billions of years.

  • Joseph G

    So how are the positrons emitted? I thought positron creation required some sort of nuclear process, like decay or pair production or something?

  • Merijn Vogel

    @Jim: ah, thanks for pointing that out. Indeed, some naturally occuring decays can create positrons. See for instance the wikipedia page about Positron emission. Cabon-11, Potassium-40 and a bunch of other isotopes will produce them.

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