Thunderstorms hurling antimatter into space caught by Fermi (w/ Video)

January 11, 2011, JPL/NASA
On Dec. 14, 2009, while NASA's Fermi flew over Egypt, the spacecraft intercepted a particle beam from a terrestrial gamma-ray flash (TGF) that occurred over its horizon. Fermi's Gamma-ray Burst Monitor detected the signal of positrons annihilating on the spacecraft -- not once, but twice. After passing Fermi, some of the particles reflected off of a magnetic "mirror" point and returned. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

( -- 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 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.

TGFs produce high-energy electrons and positrons. Moving near the speed of light, these particles travel into space along Earth's magnetic field.

Fermi is designed to monitor gamma rays, the highest energy form of light. When antimatter striking Fermi collides with a particle of normal matter, both particles immediately are annihilated and transformed into gamma rays. The GBM has detected gamma rays with energies of 511,000 electron volts, a signal indicating an electron has met its antimatter counterpart, a positron.

Although Fermi's GBM is designed to observe high-energy events in the universe, it's also providing valuable insights into this strange phenomenon. The GBM constantly monitors the entire celestial sky above and the Earth below. The GBM team has identified 130 TGFs since Fermi's launch in 2008.

"In orbit for less than three years, the Fermi mission has proven to be an amazing tool to probe the universe. Now we learn that it can discover mysteries much, much closer to home," said Ilana Harrus, Fermi program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

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 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.

Interactions with matter can produce gamma rays and vice versa. So-called "bremsstrahlung" gamma rays result when high-energy electrons traveling close to the speed of light become deflected by passing near an atom or molecule. In pair production, a gamma ray passing through the electron shell of an atom transforms into two particles: an electron and its antimatter opposite, a positron.

Scientists long have suspected TGFs arise from the strong electric fields near the tops of thunderstorms. Under the right conditions, they say, the field becomes strong enough that it drives an upward avalanche of electrons. Reaching speeds nearly as fast as light, the high-energy electrons give off gamma rays when they're deflected by air molecules. Normally, these gamma rays are detected as a TGF.

But the cascading electrons produce so many that they blast electrons and positrons clear out of the atmosphere. This happens when the gamma-ray energy transforms into a pair of particles: an electron and a positron. It's these particles that reach Fermi's orbit.

How thunderstorms launch particle beams into space. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/J. Dwyer, Florida Inst. of Technology

The detection of positrons shows many high-energy particles are being ejected from the atmosphere. In fact, scientists now think that all TGFs emit electron/positron beams. A paper on the findings has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters.

"The Fermi results put us a step closer to understanding how TGFs work," said Steven Cummer at Duke University. "We still have to figure out what is special about these storms and the precise role lightning plays in the process."

Explore further: Are TGFs Hazardous to Air Travelers?

Related Stories

Are TGFs Hazardous to Air Travelers?

February 11, 2010

Instruments scanning outer space for cataclysmic explosions called gamma-ray bursts are detecting intense flashes of gamma-ray energy right here in the friendly skies of Earth. These terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, or TGFs, ...

Fermi telescope explores high-energy 'space invaders'

May 4, 2009

( -- Since its launch last June, NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has discovered a new class of pulsars, probed gamma-ray bursts and watched flaring jets in galaxies billions of light-years away. Today at ...

Fermi Telescope Closes on Source of Cosmic Rays (w/ Video)

February 16, 2010

( -- New images from NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope show where supernova remnants emit radiation a billion times more energetic than visible light. The images bring astronomers a step closer to understanding ...

Firefly Mission to Study Terrestrial Gamma-ray Flashes

February 2, 2010

High-energy bursts of gamma rays typically occur far out in space, perhaps near black holes or other high-energy cosmic phenomena. So imagine scientists' surprise in the mid-1990s when they found these powerful gamma ray ...

Large Area Telescope explores high-energy particles

July 28, 2009

( -- NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is making some exciting discoveries about cosmic rays and the Large Area Telescope aboard Fermi is the tool in this investigation. Scientists in the Naval Research Laboratory's ...

Recommended for you

New study brings Antarctic ice loss into sharper focus

February 21, 2018

A NASA study based on an innovative technique for crunching torrents of satellite data provides the clearest picture yet of changes in Antarctic ice flow into the ocean. The findings confirm accelerating ice losses from the ...

'Chameleon' ocean bacteria can shift their colors

February 21, 2018

Cyanobacteria - which propel the ocean engine and help sustain marine life - can shift their colour like chameleons to match different coloured light across the world's seas, according to research by an international collaboration ...

Stable gas hydrates can trigger landslides

February 21, 2018

Like avalanches onshore,many processes cause submarine landslides. One very widespread assumption is that they are associated with dissociating gas hydrates in the seafloor. However, scientists at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4.8 / 5 (5) Jan 11, 2011
So now when they say "God did it" they will be talking about the Goddard space institute?
5 / 5 (10) Jan 11, 2011
flipping llsy just won't quit.

i hope spammers get hit by an anti-matter beam.

...need some anti-spam..
4 / 5 (4) Jan 11, 2011
So now when they say "God did it" they will be talking about the Goddard space institute?

This made me snort while laughing!
2.5 / 5 (2) Jan 11, 2011
No wonder aliens never land here, we're shooting them down as they admire our thunderstorms while they come in for a landing.

Perhaps those extreme energy flashes we see every now and then out in the universe are other earthlike planets going through rough weather.
1.8 / 5 (5) Jan 11, 2011
Wonder how much energy leaves our atmosphere via this process. Probably not significant enough to bother including in climate models.
4.3 / 5 (4) Jan 11, 2011
Wonder how much energy leaves our atmosphere via this process. Probably not significant enough to bother including in climate models.

Don't know the answer, but it is a good question.
Compared to the total energy of a Tstorm, though, I suspect it would be a tiny fraction.

5 / 5 (4) Jan 11, 2011
thats why we always see ufos around storms they are collecting antimatter. lol we need to start charging, how much is a gallon of antimatter. lol
not rated yet Jan 12, 2011
Wonder how much energy leaves our atmosphere via this process. Probably not significant enough to bother including in climate models.

Don't know the answer, but it is a good question.
Compared to the total energy of a Tstorm, though, I suspect it would be a tiny fraction.

Remember they said the satellite, Fermi, detects gamma radiation twice when a positron goes through its detectors so the energy that leaves the atmosphere is bouncing around the magnetosphere of the earth for a little and then gets reabsorbed(probably). The tiny fraction of energy lost is actually tinier than you thought(only the light and other radiation permanently leaves the earth's atmosphere). There's also an electron to account for as well(doing something similar in the earth's magnetosphere as well?).

Ouch! A positron just hit me in the back of the head!
That hurt :(

4 / 5 (4) Jan 12, 2011
that's incredible..say that over and over again--thunderstorms make antimatter beams--antimatter BEAMS!
a normal Midwest summer storm is making antimatter beams..not just a odd particle or two but a beam into space..not something cooked up in a lab but in that thundercloud over my head---antimatter beams--
3 / 5 (2) Jan 12, 2011
Astounding.. A satellite made for detecting GRB's from light years out detects one right from our own backyard and the amazing thing about this GRB is the 511kEV of positron annihilation.

If we can unlock the secret to make our own antimatter from this, then nothing can stop us from expanding outward in the Solar System. Perhaps we should aim Fermi to our own Sun to monitor for 511keV GRB's ?

1 / 5 (1) Jan 12, 2011

Yes, my thought exactly. No more particle accelerators producing a handful of atoms a year, if they can reproduce this over-electrification in a laboratory, we could actually harvest them at experimentable amounts in less time.

Save we still can't contain them for long...
not rated yet Jan 14, 2011
I wonder how fast the electrons have to be accelerated before they start ripping atoms apart up there. There has to be some kind of vortex, or something to build up the velocity necessary, and to focus the beam. Unless a beam is just a generalization. Still something is happening in a confined area, or you would see a constant exhale of antimatter all the time, from small storms etc.
not rated yet Jan 17, 2011
Now don't forget if it's gamma rays and positrons were talking about were going to have to be careful because of (scary music) RADITATION!!!! (girl screams).

But I wonder if we will be able to not only make antimatter with this promising new phenomenon perhaps they can use the gamma rays and postrons and the heat from the reaction to create electricity.
1 / 5 (2) Jan 18, 2011
It's all bullshit. The Israelis were testing their newest particle beam weapons.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.