Beams of antimatter spotted blasting towards the ground in hurricanes

Scientists have detected beams of antimatter being blasted towards the ground in the eyewall of a...
Scientists have detected beams of antimatter being blasted towards the ground in the eyewall of a hurricane (Credit: razlomov/Depositphotos)

Although Hurricane Patricia was one of the most powerful storms ever recorded, that didn’t stop the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from flying a scientific aircraft right through it. Now, the researchers have reported their findings, including the detection of a beam of antimatter being blasted towards the ground, accompanied by flashes of x-rays and gamma rays.

Scientists discovered terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs) in 1994, when orbiting instruments designed to detect deep space gamma ray bursts noticed signals coming from Earth. These were later linked to storms, and after thousands of subsequent observations have come to be seen as normal parts of lightning strikes.

The mechanisms behind these emissions are still shrouded in mystery, but the basic story goes that, first, the strong electric fields in thunderstorms cause electrons to accelerate to almost the speed of light. As these high-energy electrons scatter off other atoms in the air, they accelerate other electrons, quickly creating an avalanche of what are known as “relativistic” electrons.

All of these collisions also give off gamma rays, and when enough of them are happening at once, they can build to create an extremely bright TGF. But there’s another side effect: the creation of antimatter. When the gamma rays collide with the nucleus of atoms in the air, they create an electron and its antimatter equivalent, the positron, and send them screeching off in opposite directions.

Antimatter signatures have been spotted in storms in the past, but a particular phenomenon known as a reverse positron beam, where antimatter particles are sent downwards, had only been predicted by models of TGFs.

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