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In what sounds like a tale from the Bermuda Triangle, an atmospheric physicist, called Joseph Dwyer, was flying through a massive thunderstorm, when he suddenly found himself in the middle of a huge cloud of antimatter
The physicist was piloting a modified Gulfstream V plane on a scientific mission and came across the strange phenomenon by accident.
|Gulfstream V plane|
Dwyer and his co-pilot mistook a line of thunderstorms for the Georgia coast on their radar, but by the time they realized this, they had no way out.
As they entered the heart of the storm, the scientific instruments on board suddenly began to register something totally unexpected. The plane was being surrounded by positron-electron explosions causing peaks of high-energy, photon gamma rays – a clear sign of antimatter.
The plane plunged downward and began to shake violently. “I really thought I was going to die,” Dwyer said.
So what is antimatter?
ExtremeTech explains that; "Antimatter is the name we give to particles with the same mass, but opposite charge, as the particles of which we are composed. When an antiparticle comes in contact with its corresponding “normal” particle, they annihilate each other and release gamma rays. In this case, the team detected a large number of positrons (the antiparticle of an electron) in that storm."
|Image of an actual matter-antimatter annihilation due to an atom of antihydrogen captured during a CERN experiment.|
But the positrons in the storm seemed to somehow steer themselves towards the plane, and what force did that remains a mystery.
It is possible the plane itself was interacting with the antimatter. Nature says that the positrons could have been annihilated in the immediate vicinity of the aircraft, or even on the plane itself. Aleksandr Gurevich, an atmospheric physicist at the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow, suggests that the plane's wings could have become charged, producing extremely intense electric fields around them, causing the creation of positrons.
The incident actually took place in 2009, but the story has only just come out, because scientists have been at a loss to explain what happened – and they still don't have all the answers.
Dwyer, from the University of New Hampshire in Durham, told Nature; “This was so strange that we sat on this observation for several years.” Scientists are sure the findings were not the result of some instrument malfunction. They have no doubt that Dwyer's plane correctly detected antimatter. "The team’s data are a “cast-iron signature” of positrons, said Jasper Kirkby, a particle physicist at the CERN particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. However, the data which was recorded is puzzling. In particular, the size of the antimatter cloud was astounding. It measured between one to 2 km (1.25 miles) across – something never seen before, and experts still don't have an adequate explanation for that. “We tried for five years to model the production of the positrons,” and failed, says Dwyer. Antimatter, in general, is extremely ray. When it enters the Earth's atmosphere, it usually comes in the form of cosmic rays from outer space. However, it is known that thunderstorms can also produce some anti-matter, but not on this scale. Electrons in a thunderstorm can accelerate to close to the speed of light. Electron-positrons then collide with an atom nucleus and emit gamma rays.
|NASA image of antimatter being emitted from clouds|
But, what baffles scientists is that, although the plane detected gamma ray spikes, the overall energy of the gamma rays present was insufficient to have produced the huge amount of antimatter recorded.
Kirkby says that estimates of the size of the cloud might be too high, and that deeper investigations and experiments need to be made. Dwyer and his colleagues are sending special balloons into the center of severe thunderstorms to find out more. Nature also reports that the US National Science Foundation plans to fly a particle detector on an A-10 ‘Warthog’ into storms – something described as an armored anti-tank plane that could withstand the extreme environment. The thing is – it isn't just the antimatter which is mysterious – but that we lack sufficient scientific knowledge of what happens in thunderstorms in general. Dwyer said;
“The insides of thunderstorms are like bizarre landscapes that we have barely begun to explore.”