Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Antimatter Streaming Out of Thunderstorms

"Antimatter caught streaming from thunderstorms on Earth"
Jason Palmer, Science and technology, BBC News, Seattle (January 11, 2011)

"A space telescope has accidentally spotted thunderstorms on Earth producing beams of antimatter.

"Such storms have long been known to give rise to fleeting sparks of light called terrestrial gamma-ray flashes.

"But results from the Fermi telescope show they also give out streams of electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons.

"The surprise result was presented by researchers at the American Astronomical Society meeting in the US.

"It deepens a mystery about terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, or TGFs - sparks of light that are estimated to occur 500 times a day in thunderstorms on Earth. They are a complex interplay of light and matter whose origin is poorly understood.

"Thunderstorms are known to create tremendously high electric fields - evidenced by lightning strikes...."

The BBC article does a pretty good job of discussing the news from NASA.

However, the Lemming thinks NASA did a better job:

"NASA's Fermi Catches Thunderstorms Hurling Antimatter into Space"
Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope, NASA (January 10, 2011)

Includes 2:47 video, with narration.

"Scientists using NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have detected beams of antimatter produced above thunderstorms on Earth, a phenomenon never seen before.

"Scientists think the antimatter particles were formed in a terrestrial gamma-ray flash (TGF), a brief burst produced inside thunderstorms and shown to be associated with lightning. It is estimated that about 500 TGFs occur daily worldwide, but most go undetected.

" 'These signals are the first direct evidence that thunderstorms make antimatter particle beams,' said Michael Briggs, a member of Fermi's Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) team at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). He presented the findings Monday, during a news briefing at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle...."


(from Goddard Space Flight, NASA, used w/o permission)
This is a frame from a NASA video which describes the process by which the Fermi observatory detected terrestrial gamma ray flashes. The caption reads:

"NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has detected beams of antimatter launched by thunderstorms. Acting like enormous particle accelerators, the storms can emit gamma-ray flashes, called TGFs, and high-energy electrons and positrons. Scientists now think that most TGFs produce particle beams and antimatter. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center"

The BBC article includes a frame from the NASA video: not this image, but part of an animation illustrating how electrons produce light over thunderstorms.

NASA's narration (echoed in the captions) explains how Fermi detected the gamma rays.

Another excerpt from the NASA article:

"...The spacecraft was located immediately above a thunderstorm for most of the observed TGFs, but in four cases, storms were far from Fermi. In addition, lightning-generated radio signals detected by a global monitoring network indicated the only lightning at the time was hundreds or more miles away. During one TGF, which occurred on Dec. 14, 2009, Fermi was located over Egypt. But the active storm was in Zambia, some 2,800 miles to the south. The distant storm was below Fermi's horizon, so any gamma rays it produced could not have been detected.

" 'Even though Fermi couldn't see the storm, the spacecraft nevertheless was magnetically connected to it,' said Joseph Dwyer at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fla. 'The TGF produced high-speed electrons and positrons, which then rode up Earth's magnetic field to strike the spacecraft.'

"The beam continued past Fermi, reached a location, known as a mirror point, where its motion was reversed, and then hit the spacecraft a second time just 23 milliseconds later. Each time, positrons in the beam collided with electrons in the spacecraft. The particles annihilated each other, emitting gamma rays detected by Fermi's GBM...."

The NASA/Fermi article contains two other videos, plus illustrations.

The Fermi findings are the latest in serious study of the high-energy physics of thunderstorms: and quite interesting, if you're interested in that sort of thing. Which the Lemming is.

The Lemming also notes that scientists had a sort of 'shazam!' moment a few decades back, when video cameras picked up "sprites." Those bursts of light had been observed - and occasionally reported - by 'credulous' folks like soldiers and pilots for many years. And dismissed as hallucinations.

When video footage started showing up, researchers had, in the Lemming's view, a choice. They could say that the video cameras were hallucinating, too. Or they could acknowledge that there was a body of phenomena that they hadn't noticed before.

On the whole, the Lemming thinks the decision to acknowledge the existence of sprites was prudent. And, now that it's okay to study them: quite rewarding.

It's anyone's guess, in the Lemming's opinion, whether the movie industry will try to make a disaster flick out of this week's news: sort of like the 2012 silliness. (November 16, 2009)

Related posts:

2 comments:

Brigid said...

"Fermi" sounds cute if you just look at the name.

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...

Brigid,

"Fermi."

Right you are: cute! :)

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