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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