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Lightning Shows III

March 23, 2011

The next time you find your starship a little low on antimatter, you might want to swoop low over a big thunderstorm. [sfx: storm sounds] A recent discovery shows that some storms generate beams of antimatter that shoot into space at almost the speed of light.

These high-energy particle beams accompany outbursts of gamma rays that appear to be produced by lightning. The strong electric field atop a thunderstorm can create a geyser of electrons. When an electron's path is deflected by a molecule in the atmosphere, the electron emits a gamma ray. So many electrons shoot from the top of a thunderstorm that they can create a brilliant flash of gamma rays lasting a couple of thousandths of a second.

These flashes were discovered by an orbiting gamma-ray telescope in 1994. Since then, another space telescope has detected more than a hundred of them.

A couple of years ago, the telescope also detected the energy signature of positrons, the antimatter counterparts of electrons. The positrons are produced when gamma rays from a storm pass near the centers of atoms, causing the gamma rays to transform into electrons and positrons. These particles then spiral into space along the lines of Earth's magnetic field, forming a tightly focused beam.

A small satellite scheduled for launch later this year will study the gamma-ray flashes and their particle-beam offspring, offering new insights into the inner workings of thunderstorms.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011


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