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Storms on Earth create antimatter blasts in space

Star Trek fans will be familiar with the term “positron,” if not necessarily what a positron is. I’ll admit that, before researching this article, I certainly did not. But it now appears that the colossally powerful energy bursts that we call lightning are only part of the amazing energy interaction happening in our skies every day. And the other one includes a blast of.. positrons.

The Fermi Gamma Radiation Telescope is a satellite telescope run by NASA whose job it is to detect the presence of antimatter, which scientists expected to see streaming out of distant stars or black holes. When the satellite was hit by a blast of positron particles, a type of antimatter, the were surprised to find that the source was actually here on our own Earth:

Researchers studying thunderstorms have made a surprising discovery: The lightning we see with our eyes has a dark competitor that discharges storm clouds and flings antimatter into space. Astrophysicists and meteorologists are scrambling to understand “dark lightning.”

This “Dark Lightning” is yet another chain reaction that happens when electromagnetic energy builds up in clouds. Whereas electrons in lightning zap from one charged area to another, causing the brilliant bolts of energy we are familiar with, another reaction causes nearly-invisible (dark) bursts of electrons directly up and out of the cloud. This “avalanche,” as the video below describes it, causes a chain reaction that creates a short-term particle collider that shoots gamma radiation, and now we discover, positrons out into the universe.

So, what is a positron and what is antimatter? Particle physicists discovered long ago that, in order for the math of particle dynamics to work out right, every type of particle needed to have a nearly exact opposite version. Nearly, that is, in that the “Bizarro Particle” must have the same mass and an opposite value such as electrical charge. Neutrons can only exist if antineutrons can also exist; protons can only exist if antiprotons exist. And electrons can only exist if positrons – positively charged particles of the same mass as electrons – also exist. The confusing bit in this case is that we tend to think of electrons and protons as being opposite – and they are oppositely charged, but have different masses and are fundamentally different particles.

Collectively, all these antiparticles are known as antimatter. And far from being hypothetical as so much of modern quantum physics is, positrons have been detected regularly as early as 1932. For a much more in-depth primer on antimatter, read this excellent piece from Scientific American. Now, the video: