An artist's concept of antimatter spraying above a thunderhead

There have been many discussions on our page (and many other science websites) about the matter vs. anti-matter debacle in recent times. Most of the time, these topics seem pretty far from the realm of our physical reality here on Earth. After all, for the most part, we can see matter, feel it, and touch it... but the same cannot be said concerning anti-matter. Yet, as it turns out, anti-matter is much closer to us than previously thought. As it turns out, there is a palatable connection between anti-particles and our terrestrial thunderstorms.


It truly sounds like something from science fiction, doesn't it? When NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope was deployed in 2008, its primary mission concerned studying high-energy cosmological phenomena in the form of pulsars (related to neutron-stars), quasars (including other active galactic nuclei ares or blazars), the elusive dark energy, as well as gamma-ray bursts (the most energetic form of light). One thing it keenly studied was the connection between anti-matter and lightning strikes here on Earth, as lightning has been found to produce something we call 'terrestrial gamma-ray flashes' (TGF), which are short bursts of gamma-radiation that generally last about 0.2 to 3.5 milliseconds, producing up to about 20 MeV of energy.


These short blasts are typically safe, as opposed to most of the other known mechanisms that spawn long gamma-ray bursts (like supernova blasts or super-massive black holes devouring stellar materials). Gamma-ray bursts from these objects are capable of basically sterilizing any planet that lies in its path.


Thunderstorms in particular, are capable of producing anti-matter through their vast electric fields that exist near the tops of thunderstorms. If the right conditions exist, their electric field may become strong enough to produce an avalanche of electrons, flinging them upwards through a beam, traveling at near-lightspeed. These high-energy electrons will emit gamma-rays if they are deflected by air molecules in our atmosphere, where they will transform into electrons and their counterpart, the positrons, when gamma-ray energy passes through the nuclei of atoms.


Both electrons and positrons annihilate one another when they collide, producing about 511,000 electron volts of energy. Fermi is specifically designed to pick up on the energies released by the collisions of these particles, when the particularly energetic electrons push the pair clear out of our atmosphere, to the spacecraft.


Over the course of about 2 years (from August of 2008 to late 2010), scientists were able to pick up exactly four (out of 130) TGF's that emitted the particular energy frequencies alluding to anti-matter collisions during thunder storms. Of which, there are an estimated 500 TGF's emitted world-wide daily, as Fermi is not capable of detecting each and every single one that occurs each day. However, in 2009 Fermi was situated above Egypt, but the storm in question was a staggering 2,800 miles to the south of Fermi (and below its horizon), all the way in Zambia. At this location, Fermi was not capable of seeing the storm, let alone detecting a TGF. However, since the Fermi Spacecraft remains connected to it magnetically, as the beam of electrons and positrons reached a 'mirror point' it reversed its motion, allowing the beam to reach the spacecraft only milliseconds later. Furthermore, many scientists now believe that all TGF's emit electron/positron beams, which may revolutionize the way we manufacture (and work with) anti-matter.

NASA image depicting how thunderstorms launch particle beams into space

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