Thunderstorms Launch Antimatter Into Space

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Antimatter may have a good home in the realm of science fiction—it's the stuff that powered the Enterprise's warp drive, for example—but it's also real, albeit rare.

Maybe not as rare as we thought, though. Scientists have detected beams of antimatter coming out of thunderstorms and heading into space. The team reported the findings this week at the American Astronomical Society meeting.

When conditions are right, the strong electric fields near the top of a thunderstorm drive electrons (the yellow dots in the diagram) upwards, nearly at the speed of light. When the electrons are deflected by molecules of air, they give off gamma rays (the pink dots). If a gamma ray passes by the nucleus of an atom, it can transform into an electron and a positron (the few green dots among the yellow), the electron's antimatter counterpart. Those electrons and positrons race into space, following a path created by the Earth's magnetic field.

If that antimatter hits NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and collides with a bit of normal matter, the matter and antimatter are eliminated and transform back into a gamma ray that the telescope detects. "These signals are the first direct evidence that thunderstorms make antimatter particle beams," said the study's lead author, Michael Briggs of the University of Alabama.

Antimatter-powered warp drives are just around the corner, right?

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