Physicist finds mysterious anti-electron clouds inside thunderstorm

Physicist finds mysterious anti-electron clouds inside thunderstorm
Lightning and severe weather are two of the most visible products of thunderstorms. However, scientists are discovering that the storms also contain a fascinating variety of strange phenomena, including powerful gamma-ray flashes and puzzling clouds of positrons—the anti-matter version of the electron. Credit: iStock.com

A terrifying few moments flying into the top of an active thunderstorm in a research aircraft has led to an unexpected discovery that could help explain the longstanding mystery of how lightning gets initiated inside a thunderstorm.

University of New Hampshire physicist Joseph Dwyer and lightning science colleagues from the University of California at Santa Cruz and Florida Tech describe the turbulent encounter and discovery in a paper to be published in the Journal of Plasma Physics

In August 2009, Dwyer and colleagues were aboard a National Center for Atmospheric Research Gulfstream V when it inadvertently flew into the extremely violent thunderstorm—and, it turned out, through a large cloud of positrons, the antimatter opposite of electrons, that should not have been there.

To encounter a cloud of positrons without other associated physical phenomena such as energetic was completely unexpected, thoroughly perplexing and contrary to currently understood physics.

"The fact that, apparently out of nowhere, the number of positrons around us suddenly increased by more than a factor of 10 and formed a cloud around the aircraft is very hard to understand. We really have no good explanation for it," says Dwyer, a lightning expert and the UNH Peter T. Paul Chair in Space Sciences at the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space.

It is known that can sometimes make flashes of energetic , which may produce pairs of electrons and positrons when they interact with air. But the appearance of positrons should then coincide with a large increase in the number of gamma rays.

"We should have seen bright gamma-ray emissions along with the positrons," Dwyer says. "But in our observations, we first saw a positron cloud, then another positron cloud about seven kilometers away and then we saw a bright gamma-ray glow afterwards. So it's all not making a whole lot of sense."

Adds coauthor David Smith of the UC Santa Cruz, "We expected the thunderstorm to make some forms of radiation but not this. We don't even know whether it's something nature can do on its own or only happens when you toss an airplane into the mix."
The physical world is filled with normal matter and antimatter. For every normal particle there's an antiparticle, such as an electron and its associated anti-particle, called the positron, which, when brought together, annihilate each other in a flash of gamma rays. It is, Dwyer points out, the very same process that is supposed to power Star Trek's Starship Enterprise.

Having boldly gone where few people should, Dwyer says the experience inside the belly of the beast provides further insight into the bizarre and largely unknown world of thunderstorms—an alien world of gamma rays, high-energy particles accelerated to nearly the speed of light and strange clouds of antimatter positrons.

One possible explanation for the sudden appearance of positrons is that the aircraft itself dramatically influenced the electrical environment of the thunderstorm but that, Dwyer says, would be very surprising. It's also possible the researchers were detecting a kind of exotic electrical discharge inside the thunderstorm that involves positrons.

"This is the idea of 'dark lightning,' which makes a lot of positrons," says Dwyer. "In detecting the positrons, it's possible we were seeing sort of the fingerprint of dark lightning. It's possible, but none of the explanations are totally satisfying."

Dark lightning is an exotic type of electrical discharge within thunderstorms and is an alternative to normal lightning. In dark lightning, high-energy particles are accelerated and produce , which help discharge the electric field.

Says Dwyer, "We really don't understand how lightning gets started very well because we don't understand the electrical environment of thunderstorms. This positron phenomenon could be telling us something new about how thunderstorms charge up and make lightning, but our finding definitely complicates things because it doesn't fit into the picture that was developing."


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Scientists explore radiation doses to airplane passengers from bursts of gamma-rays that originate from thunderclouds

More information: Study paper: J. R. Dwyer et al. J. Plasma Phys.; in the press
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May 13, 2015
Having boldly gone where few people should

Sounds like a perfect place to use drones instead of manned aircraft.

The positron concentration sounds freaky, though. I hope this can be replicated in future tests (with a variety of craft)

May 13, 2015
Could this be something created/triggered by cosmic radiation? It might help to explain those mysterious jets and sprites out of the tops of very large thunderstorms.

May 13, 2015
Could this be something created/triggered by cosmic radiation?

Electron-Positron creation can be triggered by gamma rays. But Positrons shouldn't hang around for any serious length of time. Being antimatter they annihilate as soon as they meet an electron (releasing the gamma radiation again in the process). Much less should they hang around in clouds as they are all positively charged and should repell each other.

The notion that it could have to do with the airplane is not as far fetched as it may seem at first. If the plane is negatively charged (for whatever reason) then that could attract a positron cloud (...still doesn't explain why there's no intense gamma radiation measured till well after the fact, though)

May 13, 2015
To encounter a cloud of positrons without other associated physical phenomena such as energetic gamma-ray emissions was completely unexpected, thoroughly perplexing and contrary to currently understood physics.

This is not surprising if you have been paying attention.
It's also possible the researchers were detecting a kind of exotic electrical discharge inside the thunderstorm that involves positrons...Says Dwyer, "We really don't understand how lightning gets started very well because we don't understand the electrical environment of thunderstorms.


A refreshing bit of honesty, it's too bad some of the posters in these threads aren't as humble. Here is a phenomena that happens worldwide on a daily basis yet, "we don't understand the electrical environment of thunderstorms". Shame on me for suggesting our ignorance isn't limited to this, but also that of astrophysical plasmas as well. They also produce phenomena that are "contrary to currently understood physics".

May 13, 2015
It's the Asgardian's... ;) Sorry, couldn't help myself.

May 13, 2015
"The physical world is filled with normal matter and antimatter. For every normal particle there's an antiparticle, such as an electron and its associated anti-particle, called the positron, which, when brought together, annihilate each other in a flash of gamma rays."

I'm not sure what you intended to convey here but as stated it is, at the very least, misleading.


He didnt mean that every electron has a positron, but that every type of particle has its associated anti-particle.

May 13, 2015
To me it sounds like the thunderstorm cloud is acting like a giant capacitor. It increases its energy retention till it separates into electrons and positron clouds held apart by the violent winds and when they get triggered ... lightening discharges the load.

May 13, 2015
Electron-Positron creation can be triggered by gamma rays. But Positrons shouldn't hang around for any serious length of time. Being antimatter they annihilate as soon as they meet an electron (releasing the gamma radiation again in the process). Much less should they hang around in clouds as they are all positively charged and should repell each other.


Yes, BUT... plasma physics is only understood in the broadest terms. The electromagnetic fields around lightning are actually somewhat chaotic at some scales. Perhaps the discharge of lightning creates voids and fields that enable positrons to continue to exist for a lot longer than one might first think.

May 13, 2015
I am curious how they measured the increased "positron density" (or whatever) ... as far as I know, there's no way to DIRECTLY measure them that's easily portable (i.e. could have been on the airplane). Techniques like mass spectrometry or cloud chambers that can measure both the charge and mass/charge ratio generally require cumbersome apparatus that would be tricky to install on the plane, to say nothing of them being able to sample the *external* atmosphere. Short of that, the most likely way would be to detect them indirectly from the 0.511 MeV gamma rays emitted during electron-positron annihilation. In that case, how would they know for sure that the gammas came from positrons, and not just from some sort of direct gamma source (like ionization/acceleration of charged particles during a massive electrical discharge)? Normally I'd look up the paper myself, but it's still in press. Anybody know how they could measure these "positron clouds" referenced in the article?

May 13, 2015
I am curious how they measured the increased "positron density" (or whatever) ... as far as I know, there's no way to DIRECTLY measure them that's easily portable... Anybody know how they could measure these "positron clouds" referenced in the article?


As you point out, 511 KeV gammas - it would look like a sharp peak on the display, whereas gammas from energetic phenomena would look like background noise.

Now I'm off to read the paper to see if I'm right!

May 13, 2015
I am curious how they measured the increased "positron density" (or whatever) ... as far as I know, there's no way to DIRECTLY measure them that's easily portable... Anybody know how they could measure these "positron clouds" referenced in the article?


As you point out, 511 KeV gammas - it would look like a sharp peak on the display


Hmmm .. that seems pretty reasonable ... it would also suggest that the kinetic energies of the positrons are not very high (also consistent with them forming a "cloud"), so where they heck COULD they have come from? I mean, is there even a theory out there that predicts spontaneous anti-matter generation from large voltages or high-voltage discharges? I mean directly, without going through the "normal" route of pair-production from ~1.02 MeV gammas (which don't seem to be present anyway, based on the article).

May 14, 2015
@DarkLordKelvin according to notes I have ( must have got them from the Net somewhere) some 'supercell' storms can generate vasts amounts of energy when condensation takes place. The energy created might be greater than an atomic bomb and particle antiparticle production takes place. When these collide more gamma rays are produced and MIGHT result in further particle antiparticle production.
Thus the article
'...To encounter a cloud of positrons without other associated physical phenomena such as energetic gamma-ray emissions was completely unexpected, thoroughly perplexing and contrary to currently understood physics...'
might not be entirely accurate.
I'm not sure if the condensation energy release is at a single location or whether it's spread throughout the cloud and this would affect what I've said. Just a thought anyway.

May 14, 2015
Consider it the same as 'static electricity' a raw form of electron that is rubbed off from certain materials, thus a positron cloud could be 'rubbed' off from certain dark matter materials or energies unknown as yet. Certainly there for speculation, at least.

May 14, 2015
Hmm. I thought atmospheric science was all a settled matter. Maybe some politicians need to stop being (or believing) fakers.

May 14, 2015
Hmm. I thought atmospheric science was all a settled matter. Maybe some politicians need to stop being (or believing) fakers.


Yeah! Because all atmospheric science is the same thing ... if you can't understand electrical discharges inside thunderstorms, how could you possibly understand the almost completely unrelated phenomena associated with radiative energy transfer?

May 14, 2015
@DarkLordKelvin according to notes I have ( must have got them from the Net somewhere) some 'supercell' storms can generate vasts amounts of energy when condensation takes place. The energy created might be greater than an atomic bomb
Well, a lot of energy is *released* as *heat* during condensation, but it's not at all clear why such heating should lead to pair-production by itself.
I'm not sure if the condensation energy release is at a single location or whether it's spread throughout the cloud
The heat is initially released into the many tiny droplets forming around condensation nuclei, so it's dispersed throughout the cloud. The electrical discharges are created by the wind currents inside the thunderhead clouds, which act like a giant van de Graaf generator, driving water and ice particles in a vertical cycle that results in massive amounts of charge separation. Seems like any positrons must be created during that process, or in the discharges themselves.

May 14, 2015
thingumbobesquire stated
Hmm. I thought atmospheric science was all a settled matter
How did yu arrive at this idea, the Science which underlies AGW is settled ie Heat in terms of greenhouse gas effect & especially so CO2's significant effect & rising shown here:-
https://en.wikipe...ings.svg

thingumbobesquire suggested
Maybe some politicians need to stop being (or believing) fakers
This includes all those that get unconnected vague ideas from unclear sources such as media hype etc...

The great value of Sceince is once one is motivated to get an education in the core Science which is based upon Physics in terms of variations in heat flow then its much less likely to be politically & emotionally manipulated by those pursuing (what appears to be) malevolent agendas not founded upon the discipline & integrity inherent in Science.

A major aspect which is settled Science is
https://en.wikipe...transfer

May 14, 2015
Hmm. I thought atmospheric science was all a settled matter. Maybe some politicians need to stop being (or believing) fakers.


Yeah! Because all atmospheric science is the same thing ... if you can't understand electrical discharges inside thunderstorms, how could you possibly understand the almost completely unrelated phenomena associated with radiative energy transfer?


On the timescale of decades or centuries, it is a settled matter. On the time scales of a lightening flash, it is not. I can predict that over the life of your car, you'll get between 20 and 30mpg fuel efficiency. For your drive to work this morning? I need a lot more information. These sorts of things get a lot more complicated the more precise you're trying to be. But a statement like "Dumping the weight of a mountain ranges worth of CO2 into the atmosphere every year is a bad thing and will likely kill us all" is a broad enough statement that we can be sure it's accurate.

May 14, 2015
@DarkLordKelvin thanks for the reply, most appreciated.

May 14, 2015
swordsman claims
More likely to be a capacitive phenomenon, such as occurs in electrolytic capacitors, and in batteries
No. Very much DOUBT that idea, there is NIL evidence for anti-particle production from capacitors

You need high energies to generate the particle pair but, there is a path to do it, I recall reading elsewhere @ phys.org that Sol's Heliospheric magnetic field can modulate small changes in Earth's EMF thus affecting the number of cosmic rays powerful enough to reach or seed atmospheric lightning discharges & that collision decay path has shown through current physics production of positrons

swordsman claims
Most physicists do not have a good understanding of electromagnetic (EM) phenomena
No. Very much DOUBT that sentiment, suggests you've been fed a diet of pseudo-science half baked beliefs wanting to validate anything ; ie anti-gravity to dark matter to cold fusion

EM has been VERY well studied, so what leads you to that derisive idea ?

May 14, 2015
Think this is relevant re positrons and the cloud etc & how they are directed...

Nasa short video on youtube re lightning, gamma rays & Fermi recording the events, fascinating too re the 'bounce' o:)
https://www.youtu...t7UVjd-I

The other link re Sol's Heliospheric field is here but, couldn't see ref to cosmic ray's also producing positrons, the other link does show the 'cloud' of positrons following earth's field influence
http://phys.org/n...-uk.html


May 14, 2015
@DLK
I am curious how they measured the increased "positron density" (or whatever) ... as far as I know, there's no way to DIRECTLY measure them that's easily portable (i.e. could have been on the airplane). Techniques like mass spectrometry or cloud chambers that can measure both the charge and mass/charge ratio generally require cumbersome apparatus that would be tricky to install on the plane, to say nothing of them being able to sample the *external* atmosphere. Short of that, the most likely way would be to detect them indirectly from the 0.511 MeV gamma rays emitted during electron-positron annihilation. In that case, how would they know for sure... Anybody know how they could measure these "positron clouds" referenced in the article?
On Nature.com the article gives some more details http://www.nature...-1.17526

May 14, 2015
This result is very perplexing. No detection of gamma ray spikes to explain positron creation, a cloud of 'em detected by the aircraft...

Perhaps positrons can be generated by other than powerful gamma rays?

Got a feeling there's some cool stuff to learn buried in this enigma.

May 15, 2015
Urgelt lamented
This result is very perplexing. No detection of gamma ray spikes to explain positron creation, a cloud of 'em detected by the aircraft...
Did you not see the link I posted earlier, Nasa has looked at this, here is the link again
https://www.youtu...t7UVjd-I

I know there are people who just post comments & don't read those that went immediately before, like Water_Prophet who never proves any of his claims, it seemed to me you were sincere in considering reports other than in the articles based on what I have read of your comments previously,

Any comments on the youtube link by Nasa, seems plausible ?

And of course there is Technocreed's link as well... re article on nature
http://www.nature...-1.17526

May 15, 2015
Urgelt lamented
This result is very perplexing. No detection of gamma ray spikes to explain positron creation, a cloud of 'em detected by the aircraft...
Did you not see the link I posted earlier, Nasa has looked at this, here is the link again
https://www.youtu...t7UVjd-I
I saw that link, and Technocreed's as well .. and I still agree with UrgeIt. The NASA link describes a different phenomenon, where there would clearly be a large flux of "bright gammas" associated with the positrons, and the article above specifically notes this was not the case for their observations of these "positron clouds". Technocreed's link indicates the scientists who observed this are just as perplexed as the we are about the origin of the positrons. [ctd]

May 15, 2015
[ctd]
This is from the link on the Nature site:
Each γ-ray spike lasted about one-fifth of a second, Dwyer and his collaborators say, and was accompanied by some γ-rays of slightly lower energy. The team concluded that those γ-rays had lost energy as a result of travelling some distance and calculated that a short-lived cloud of positrons, 1–2 kilometres across, had surrounded the aircraft. But working out what could have produced such a cloud has proved hard. "We tried for five years to model the production of the positrons," says Dwyer.


So, I understand the general phenomenon of pair production, and I have no problem with it happening in thunderheads *under the proper circumstances*. However what's described above is a different case, and I think it's pretty natural for us to be confused about the results if the experts have tried for 5 years to model it without success. :)

May 16, 2015
So 1) we figure out how to reproduce this antimatter production in controlled facilities or 2) we figure how to harvest it in situ.

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