The idea that antimatter can be created inside a lightning strike is not a new one. In fact, as the Inquisitr previously reported, a 2017 study revealed that lightning bolts can produce nuclear reactions that result in matter-antimatter annihilation.
The explanation for this phenomenon lies in the bursts of gamma rays emitted when lightning strikes and which can interact with air molecules to produce positrons, the antimatter equivalent of electrons.
However, no one had observed an antimatter beam, or a positron beam, striking down on our planet during a terrestrial gamma-ray flash. Enter Hurricane Patricia, the strongest tropical cyclone on record, which ended up making history in more ways than one, Science Alert reports.
It turns out that, during its 2015 rampage over the west coast of Mexico, Hurricane Patricia blasted Earth with a downward positron beam — the first one ever to be recorded as originating from a terrestrial gamma-ray flash.
According to a study published last week in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, the phenomenon was spotted on October 23, 2015, by the Hurricane Hunter aircraft operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The intrepid crew piloting the aircraft flew straight into the towering eyewall of the swirling maelstrom when Hurricane Patricia was at peak intensity. This enabled the Airborne Detector for Energetic Lightning Emissions (ADELE) on board the Hurricane Hunter to capture the antimatter beam as it was unleashed toward the ground by a lightning strike.
“We detected it at an altitude of 2.5 kilometers, and I estimated our detectors could have seen it down to 1.5 kilometers,” said study co-author David Smith, a physicist from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The downward positron beam came from “an upward terrestrial gamma-ray flash that sent a short blast of radiation into space above the storm,” states UC Santa Cruz, which developed ADELE in order to detect X-rays and gamma rays produced by downward-moving positrons.
As it happens, terrestrial gamma-ray flashes (TGFs) produced by lightning strikes are notoriously difficult to catch because they only last for a few milliseconds.
First observed in 1994 with the help of gamma-ray detectors stationed in space, TGFs actually happen very frequently and are capable of producing extremely high energies of up to 20 million electronvolts, notes Science Alert.
Although theoretical models of TGFs had shown that they can create reverse positron beams, no one had been able to prove this theory until the dauntless flight of NOAA’s aircraft.
“This is the first confirmation of that theoretical prediction, and it shows that TGFs are piercing the atmosphere from top to bottom with high-energy radiation,” Smith pointed out.
As he explains, the phenomenon would have been easily noticeable from space, and it was only due to “a beam of antimatter (positrons) sent in the opposite direction” that ADELE managed to capture it “from below.”
The relatively low altitude at which the positron beam was detected suggests further observations could be achieved by simply placing ground-based instruments high enough to capture TGFs.
“That’s the altitude of Denver, so there are a lot of places where you could in theory see them if you had an instrument in the right place at the right time during a thunderstorm,” notes Smith.
This would mean that the phenomenon could be studied without necessarily flying through violent hurricanes and having pilots in close proximity to gamma rays, which are potentially hazardous if they occur at distances shorter than half a mile.