January 12, 2011 in Nation/World

Scientists find thunderstorms emit antimatter

Thomas H. Maugh Ii Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – To the great surprise of physicists and meteorologists alike, NASA’s orbiting Fermi gamma-ray observatory has discovered that thunderstorms are emitting powerful bursts of antimatter into space.

Antimatter is a mirror image of normal matter with unusual properties – protons with negative charges, electrons with positive charges, and so on. It was created in equal abundance to normal matter at the beginning of the universe, but was destroyed when it came in contact with the latter normal matter and is now primarily the subject of fiction: the material that powers the starship Enterprise or the bomb beneath the Vatican in the novel “Angels & Demons.”

Very small amounts have been produced by powerful accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, but can be captured for only fractions of a second. That’s why researchers are so astonished to see antimatter being produced by such a common everyday event as lightning.

In retrospect, “we can say ‘Why didn’t we realize that was happening?’ ” said physicist Joseph R. Dwyer of the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, a co-author of a paper about the findings that is scheduled to appear in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. “It illustrates the amazing things that thunderstorms can do.”

Some indirect evidence in the past suggested that antimatter might be emitted by lightning, added electrical engineer Steven Cummer of Duke University, who studies lightning and the radio emissions from it. “But this is the first time it has been absolutely unambiguously detected,” he said.

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