Fermi Telescope Catches Thunderstorms Hurling Antimatter into Space

From a NASA press release:

Scientists using NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have detected beams of antimatter produced above thunderstorms on Earth, a phenomenon never seen before.

Scientists think the antimatter particles were formed in a terrestrial gamma-ray flash (TGF), a brief burst produced inside thunderstorms and shown to be associated with lightning. It is estimated that about 500 TGFs occur daily worldwide, but most go undetected.

“These signals are the first direct evidence that thunderstorms make antimatter particle beams,” said Michael Briggs, a member of Fermi’s Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) team at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). He presented the findings Monday, during a news briefing at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.

Fermi is designed to monitor gamma rays, the highest energy form of light. When antimatter striking Fermi collides with a particle of normal matter, both particles immediately are annihilated and transformed into gamma rays. The GBM has detected gamma rays with energies of 511,000 electron volts, a signal indicating an electron has met its antimatter counterpart, a positron.

Although Fermi’s GBM is designed to observe high-energy events in the universe, it’s also providing valuable insights into this strange phenomenon. The GBM constantly monitors the entire celestial sky above and the Earth below. The GBM team has identified 130 TGFs since Fermi’s launch in 2008.

On Dec. 14, 2009, while NASA's Fermi flew over Egypt, the spacecraft intercepted a particle beam from a terrestrial gamma-ray flash (TGF) that occurred over its horizon. Fermi's Gamma-ray Burst Monitor detected the signal of positrons annihilating on the spacecraft -- not once, but twice. After passing Fermi, some of the particles reflected off of a magnetic "mirror" point and returned. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

“In orbit for less than three years, the Fermi mission has proven to be an amazing tool to probe the universe. Now we learn that it can discover mysteries much, much closer to home,” said Ilana Harrus, Fermi program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The spacecraft was located immediately above a thunderstorm for most of the observed TGFs, but in four cases, storms were far from Fermi. In addition, lightning-generated radio signals detected by a global monitoring network indicated the only lightning at the time was hundreds or more miles away. During one TGF, which occurred on Dec. 14, 2009, Fermi was located over Egypt. But the active storm was in Zambia, some 2,800 miles to the south. The distant storm was below Fermi’s horizon, so any gamma rays it produced could not have been detected.

“Even though Fermi couldn’t see the storm, the spacecraft nevertheless was magnetically connected to it,” said Joseph Dwyer at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fla. “The TGF produced high-speed electrons and positrons, which then rode up Earth’s magnetic field to strike the spacecraft.”

The beam continued past Fermi, reached a location, known as a mirror point, where its motion was reversed, and then hit the spacecraft a second time just 23 milliseconds later. Each time, positrons in the beam collided with electrons in the spacecraft. The particles annihilated each other, emitting gamma rays detected by Fermi’s GBM.

Scientists long have suspected TGFs arise from the strong electric fields near the tops of thunderstorms. Under the right conditions, they say, the field becomes strong enough that it drives an upward avalanche of electrons. Reaching speeds nearly as fast as light, the high-energy electrons give off gamma rays when they’re deflected by air molecules. Normally, these gamma rays are detected as a TGF.

But the cascading electrons produce so many gamma rays that they blast electrons and positrons clear out of the atmosphere. This happens when the gamma-ray energy transforms into a pair of particles: an electron and a positron. It’s these particles that reach Fermi’s orbit.

The detection of positrons shows many high-energy particles are being ejected from the atmosphere. In fact, scientists now think that all TGFs emit electron/positron beams. A paper on the findings has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters.

“The Fermi results put us a step closer to understanding how TGFs work,” said Steven Cummer at Duke University. “We still have to figure out what is special about these storms and the precise role lightning plays in the process.”

NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership. It is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. It was developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden and the United States.

The GBM Instrument Operations Center is located at the National Space Science Technology Center in Huntsville, Ala. The team includes a collaboration of scientists from UAH, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany and other institutions.

More visuals and animations of this research is available here.

After midnight on Monday, (Eastern Standard Time), the paper will become available on the AGU website at this link for those registered with AGU.

54 Replies to “Fermi Telescope Catches Thunderstorms Hurling Antimatter into Space”

  1. Normal visible matter can be very stable i.e. galaxies, and comprised of commonly known familiar objects of matter that have Gravity. are matter/anti-matter counterparts electrical particle beams, black holes, lightning, vibrations, frequency.. by Maxwell’s laws… that leads to a new single EM-Gravity Unified Law, for the new physics that Einstein sought a long time ago? Could black holes create anti-matter around galaxies by electricity that seems to be the attractive center pinch to explain away phony dark matter holding the galaxy rotation curves together?

    1. More gobbledegook from the master nutter.
      No evidence, just plain nonsense.
      Rubbish, like believing that “Gravity is lightning” is all that needs to be said.
      Really. Was this to do with Earth-bound thunderstorms?
      You are a complete fool, sir!

  2. I believe that so-called “mega-lightning” or “positive lightning” can have up to 10 times the power of the average lightning bolt. X-rays and even gamma rays have also been linked to lightning, see:

    J. R. Dwyer, et al. “A ground level gamma-ray burst observed in association with
    rocket-triggered lightning”, Geophys. Res. Lett., 31, L05119, doi:10.1029/2003GL018771. (pdf)

    Umran S. Inan et al, “On the association of terrestrial gamma?ray bursts with lightning and implications for sprites”, Geophys. Res. Lett., 23(9), 1017-1020. (pdf)

    The association of anti-matter with lightning can be read here:

    Signature of Antimatter Detected in Lightning
    Ron Cowen, Science News, November 6, 2009

  3. This is not something I would have expected. Lightning is about 10ev in energy, or its equivalent in temperature. To create e-e^+ pairs you need energy that is about 1Mev (twice for the mass of an electron) and about 3 times that for a threshold energy. The Boltzmann distribution Z = e^{-E/kT} will have kT ~ 10ev and if we insert E ~ 10^6 ev this

    Z = exp(-10^5)

    which is a very small number. So this means something very strange is going on here. The electrons which are shot into the upper atmosphere can’t be given by a Boltzmann distribution! There is something very peculiar going on here.


    1. Well, you gain an order of magnitude (voltage, but also charge) by studying positive lightning, the ones that goes from the positive cloud top to ground as it can be skewed away from the negative cloud bottom.

      They are more common in some parts here (Sweden), though I don’t know what kind of meteorological circumstances is responsible. (They ought to be coupled to shear winds.)

  4. Very very interesting. With anti-matter so difficult to obtain, and considering these detections are above Earth in space, might this become a possible source of anti-matter which can be used propulsion in space travel?

    1. I don’t see how.

      The problem isn’t to produce antimatter effectively (I think), the problem is that it costs so much in energy. This wouldn’t change the latter.

  5. Thank you Nancy Atkinson for keeping an open mind about Electric Theory and Plasma Universe theory and posting this article and attendant video !!!, which show that Electric Theory is the correct path to understanding what’s happening ‘out there’ !, despite the mainstream posters here who rave against anything Electric Theory but are mostly ignorant of what ET is saying.

    1. Oh you silly boy.
      Like your fellow nutter QuantaUniverse.com, aka Muppet, you have been brainwashed by those who should know better.
      Most plasma Universe concepts are utter nonsense, professed by foolish people like you. Sorry, it is you that is the one mostly ignorant here.

    2. This has nothing to do with EU nuttery, and it is very unlikely to change EM theory as you seem to suggest (“open mind about Electric Theory”).

      1. Oh, I missed this gem: “are mostly ignorant of what ET is saying”. Most people are also ignorant of astrology, homeopathy and anti-vaxx ideas, which after all are or were “theory” once. We who live in the real world are interested in real, working theories and facts. No scientist has published on “ET”.

      2. Yes Torbjorn, and back in the 1500’s, nobody was publishing on the heliocentric universe, because the geocentric “theory” seemed absolute.

        I know this thread isn’t related to ETs, but to make a statement like that after the history of science has shown that assumptions only slow the progress…just shows me that we’re falling into the very same traps that befell scientists from half a milennium ago…

      3. Oh please.
        Just because that we discover something does mean we have to invert the whole deck of card. PC/EU is nonsense, and it has been shown to be the case in Universe Today stories for more than two years! Every time someone has come up with some claptrap, the have been buried in snowstorm of observational facts or exposed for ideas ideas that are just plain wrong. As for many of the ideas on astrophysical phenomena, PU/EU has zip of observational evidence to back it up, and nothing more than Oh look, it looks like this, so it must be this.
        What we haven’t exterminated in half a millennia is gobbledygook disguised as pseudoscience. Frankly you might as well examine chicken entrails, get out the Tarot cards, start water divining, an sit under a metal pyramid to focus the energy of the Universe..
        Next you will be telling me gravity disappears in a Faraday cage. (Just ask you mate Mr.Muppet aka Jimhenson, or whatever the pseudonym avatar he is using this week. That is what he thinks!

  6. This tells us nothing about a plasma universe or electric universe or any of this stuff. Seriously people, the electromagnetic interaction is one of four interactions manifested at low energy < 1TeV. There are also the nuclear QCD, weak nuclear and gravitational interactions. The electromagnetic interaction is fairly strong, 1/100 that of the QCD force and about 100 times the weak nuclear and 10^{39} that of gravity, and it is abelian. An abelian interaction means the fields are determined by straight differentials on the potentials and they are linear. This means the field does not interact with itself and it exhibits long range behavior. The EM force is also involved with most of the things we ordinarily encounter in this world, material strengths, chemistry, light, heat, electrical phenomena, magnetism and so forth. It is also the most easily controlled and exhibits a wide range of complicated processes. However, it does not direct the large scale structure of the universe. That is the province of spacetime physics, general relativity or what we call gravitation.

    What is curious about this is that electric fields are strong enough to accelerate electrons to the multi-MeV range in energy. From a straight forwards equipartition consideration I would expect the electric fields to have energy E = D^2/2 ~ 3kT/2, D = eps*E, capable of accelerating electrons to an energy ~ few ev, or a speed of about 10^{-2}c. Yet somehow just as the solar surface is about the same temperature of a lightning bolt they are both able to heat up a tenuous gas of ions and charged particles to much higher energy.


    1. All the equations in the world don’t stop us from all having to take stock sometimes. This find is truly surprising and the ramifications could be mind boggling.

    2. it does not direct the large scale structure of the universe.

      Also notable is that this is easy to see, since EM has two opposite charges and so shields itself. While gravity has one charge, and despite being weak adds up to significance.

      I believe the few charges is tied to being abelian, but anyway there it is. One interaction decide large scale structure, and only when cosmology is considered other stuff like the cosmological constant (likely vacuum energy) comes into play – if that is what dark energy is.

      I, for one, welcome our gravitas possessing Cosmological Overlord.

      1. The electromagnetic field is the circle on the complex plane. It is a simple rotation group, called U(1). The eigenvalues are on the real axis as +1 and -1 for the two charges. The rotation on the complex plane is given by the simple Euler angle @ with the complex number or phase e^{i@}. The phase angle is related to the electromagnetic vector potential A as

        @ = int A*dx.

        Various differentials on this give the fields for EM. For instance B = curl A, and in general the field tensor or two-form is F = dA. For other gauge group there are several potentials A_i, where the index i runs over the dimension of the group. For these cases the covariant differential D_i = d + A_i acts on an A_j with

        D_jA_i = dA_i + A_iA_j,

        where antisymmetry on the i and j index means A_iA_j is a nonzero commutator with Lie algebraic content. It gets a bit complicated at this point.

        For gravity the Lie group is not compact. If it were compact there would be a Cartan center (to use the math term) that is abelian. So there would be a circle for the phase. However, by being noncompact the circle is replaced by a hyperbola, which intersects the complex plane at +1 and -1 by the two disconnected parts of the hyperbola. So there is no gauge interaction which can generate +1 and -1 mass-energy charges. The universe is stuck with +1 for the topological charge, and the -1 charge is pathological — indeed related to why there can’t time machines, wormholes, warp drives and so forth.

        Gravity does “saturate,” where under the right conditions a whole lot of mass can get packed into a region to form intense gravity fields, with the extreme case being the black hole. Charges repel each other and so a huge collection of matter is likely to have equal + and – charges and so it is neutral.


      2. Larsson wrote: “One interaction decides large scale structure”

        Actually, electromagnetic forces are dominant for all plasmas whose particle size is smaller than about a grain (see Mendis, D. A.; Rosenberg, M., “Cosmic Dusty Plasmas”, Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Volume 32, 1994, pp. 419-463, Sec 4 “Dynamics” p.436pp).

        That’s why, for example, the Solar Wind is able to easily overcome the Sun’s immense gravitational pull, and form the largest coherent structure in the Solar System: the heliospheric current sheet.

      3. Your reference is about “dust” that gets bombarded by radiation and charged particles. The only places in the solar system where you find this dust is in planets rings like Saturn, comets tails and formation of the solar system.

        Unless you are explaining the beginning of the solar system that did have a dust environment then your claim is baseless.

        Solar wind is NOT dust! Solar wind only needs a delta V that has an escape velocity of the Sun. No Magic EU tricks are required.

      4. Like a dusty plasmas, plasma particles (electrons, ions), are dominated by electromagnetic forces.

        Of course, the solar wind is not dust, but the electrons and ion “particles” are dominated by electromagnetic (EM) forces, and it is EM the causes them to escape the Sun’s gravity. Indeed,no magic required or implied, standard plasma physics.

      5. A cloud of dust that is sufficiently massive will dynamically evolve by gravity. Also there is clearly a lower bound, where on scales less than 10^{-13} cm the nuclear or QCD force dominates.


      6. Olaf: “Outside the closeness of the Sun and in none-dense plasma places gravity is the dominating factor.”

        The interplanetary medium is a plasma, from close to the Sun, out to the plasmapause. As a plasma, the interplanetary magnetic field strongly influences the plasma, as demonstrated by the shape of the largest coherent structure in the Solar System, the Heliospheric current sheet.

      7. Electron and ions are only affected either a very close range with each other (Dense plasma) or when there is a huge charge or magnetic field close enough (Close to the sun, or close to a planet).

        Outside the closeness of the Sun and in none-dense plasma places gravity is the dominating factor.

  7. Just a comment. The link for the Monday release paper on this story goes to an authorisation page; not the article. Do you have any other sources on this paper so that we can make reasonable comment on this story?

  8. Has serendipity struck?

    Wouldn’t it be fortunate if the anti matter spectrometer AMS-02 (soon to be installed aboard the ISS via STS-134) provided a second instrument to help investigate the origin of TGFs. Fermi and the ISS have similar LEO orbits after all.


  9. there’s a lot of BS from crumb who has flipped out over stupid tv muppet shows he must like to watch? crumb is the real muppet here, it’s crumb the scum insulter who keeps being jerked around ranting and raving about the muppet shows and the EM PC universe theories. many here e.g. larson, lars outwardly state a willingness for having open minds about electricity and anti-matter, not in the least do I agree with most of the EU or PC universe articles written by non-scientists, anymore then I believe in dark matter hunters who go deep underground earth to detect what is mostly galaxy missing gravity particles, when gravitons nor gravity waves have not even been detected to exist. galaxies are 99% plasma gas and dust, and a black hole or electric particle beam like common available earth lightning that is created in outer space and not on earth neutral gravity is going to pull together these galactic constituents to form EM agn galaxy center inferred black holes.

    1. Could you at least try condensing your crazy cult fantasies so I could at least bother to read it? Ever heard of TL;DR?

  10. So, if there is enough energy to create antimatter…. then is there enough energy for nucleosynthesis processes? right?

    1. Aqua don’t get your hopes up with EU.
      EU is BS and it stays BS. It is amazing how flawed EU is when you know basic physics. And I actually doubt that the EU believers actually understand what +charge (ions) means.
      It is not like what you are used to in normal electricity and electronics class. In home electricity we move electrons only. Ions are not moved. The positive charge in home electricity means lack of electrons compared to the side that has too many electrons, or in semiconductors a hole. But in space positive charge means an ion that it is not fixed to a grid like a semiconductor but actually moving.

      1. In short home electronics/electronic engineers is “the art of moving electrons only”. That is only half of the story.
        The real physics deals with “the art of moving ions” PLUS “the art of moving electrons”.

      2. @Olaf “In home electricity we move electrons only”

        Except in fluorescent and low-power lighting (and hence plasma TVs), As a nice aside, if you put a battery across ice, protons are the dominant charge carrier, which is not to detract from your generalization..

      3. fluorescent lights? You are kidding me. You are ADDING electrons to one side, the energy by these electrons will shakes lose the electron from the gas. The ions will tend to be attracted by the incoming electrons. The ions will never get inside the electric wiring. The movement of the ions is limited for a short range. The number of ions is also very limited compared to the number of electrons.

        In additions in a fluorescence light are separated by mechanical means, the tube. In space no framework exists, they are free floating. Over time any charge difference will attract each other and cancel each other out. Your current stops in a few hundreds or thousands years.

      4. In the battery and ice example, only electrons move the complete circuity. The pure water/ice can conduct the positive ions only between the 2 poles of the battery and then stops.

      5. The electric field which accelerates the electrons could just as well accelerate ions. Of course the electrons produce gamma rays by a Bremsstrahlung process which scales as 1/m^4. So accelerated ions being thousands of time more massive are not going to contribute much on that front. The accelerated ions might slam into other ions, but this likely is a weak nucleosynthesis generator. The ions would interact in the Mev range of energy, but the nuclei are tightly bound (N and O are not “floppy” as with actinide metals) and there is little energetic driving mechanism. The accelerated electrons might interact with nuclei, but that too has a small probability. In interacting with an ion the quantum amplitude would ignore the outer electrons. So very few electrons would interact directly with nuclei in an electromagnetic or weak interaction.


  11. A TGF and positrons will doubtless cause the AMS counters to ping. This will probably be more to the chagrin of the investigators. This will amount to noise they will want to filter out.

    One of the things which I got into for various reasons was the characterization of lightning. This was after the GR work with GPS synchronization ended, and I had to get in on another project — pronto. This proved to be an amusing thing to work on. It was funny for we published in open literature, but the reasons for this work were extremely classified. I characterized the spectrum of lightning. The mystery of lightning was the mechanism for charge separations and the formation of leaders. I have not followed the topic particularly, so I don’t know what the status of that is. I do find it interesting this leads to electric fields that are strong enough to kick electrons out at MeV energy scales.

    Planet watcher suggests this as a source of antimatter. The thought occurred to me as well, but not for propulsion. If the process could be characterized and emulated in the lab, we might be able to produce high energy particle pairs. The idea being that we might be able to use them in high energy particle physics. I will confess doubt that this could be amplified a million times in energy to provide a rival to the LHC. Then again who knows. This is rather interesting, for these electric fields are powerful longitudinal fields which I would not expect. It leaves me wondering if a high powered laser cavity with a large current flow, or pulse, might generate the same sorts of fields.


  12. Didnt even bother reading all above comments. But, shall add my own slice of nuttery.
    Apparently UFO sightings are prevalent around energetic lightning storms. 🙂

    So, um, gamma rays must be a good indicator of the presence of antimatter. ? What does that add to the hypothesized dearth of positrons in the universe? Or are equal amounts of both electrons and positrons bound up in the nuclei of atoms after all?

  13. It’s obvious that Quanta is attempting to get hits on his/her “website”. Go away Quack.

  14. “outside the closeness of the sun” gravity weakens with the square of the distance, but moving plasma ions with EM forces do not weaken, filling ALL of interstellar and intergalactic space where Huge magnetic fields surround galaxies that are foolishly mapped as dark matter regions to maintain shapes produced by EM forces i.e atoms, stars with jets current sheath, barred spiral galaxies, even superclusters. Gravity is only believed dominant in the universe, yet the suns global magnetic field is shaped just like the fine-structure constant alpha, into a bar magnet varying EM force over distance that aligns with the dark flow EM pinch 150 billion light years distance. there are unseen unbelievable monster sized structures trillions of light years distance and beyond,that were formed by EM forces because gravity weakens with distance but plasma ions move near light speed. this is the fallacy of the big-bang gravity model and why multiverses are invented that are unnecessary.

    1. In literally one long sentence I can see more than thirty errors in the diatribe of wasteful verbiage and very misguided pseudoscience. If i were to counter this nonsense it would be the longest post ever on Universe Today!
      Sorry Muppet. Most of what you write here has been proven to be absolutely wrong. All of it is twaddle. Let’s see… Weak 10^-19 Telsa fields across extragalactic galactic space just isn’t strong enough to support these imaginary huge field lines. It indicates most of what you write here is just incorrect. Sigh!

  15. Plasma cosmology is completely wrong. It is now known as Plasma Mythology Theory (PMT) that predicts from very complex physics the small scale structure of the universe

    In the plasma mythology model, superclusters, clusters and galaxies are eventually destroyed from magnetically confined plasma vortex filaments thingees, that gleefully zap anyone from afar and leave little burnt bits that smell like badly burnt toast. (This produced the Carbon throughout the known universe.) The plasma mythology approach can easily accommodate small and large scale structures, and in fact firmly predicts from basic physical and electrical principles a distribution of matter and charcoal, with overall density being not proportional to the distance of separation of objects but only with . This non-proportional scaling relationship has been borne out by a couple of studies on all unobservable scales of the universe dating from the 14th and 15th Centuries. (Learnt, it seems, by the burning of many many witches at the stake as documented from peer reviewed Church documents.) Naturally, since the plasma mythology approach hypothesizes only one origin in time for the universe, the large amounts of time need to create large-scale burnt structures present no problems for our new mythological theory. All it requires is just a little faith in our pseudoscience, a of electricians, a couple of 12V or 24V car batteries and much needed application of electricity for the electroconvulsive therapy. (Collectively known as Spiritual Technology) This produced currents that nicely crisps everything jet black at distances of several trillions of light years!

    (We ask you to donate generously to save our many delude comrades!)

    The Eclectic Electrician

    Note: In your communications, please be sure that, unless you have developed specific strategies with Plasma Mythology Theorists management, you not identify yourself as a member of the Plasma Mythology Theorist group, but as a curious or interested cultist armed with the knowledge of Electrical Spiritual Technology. Let Jupiter strike me down if I’m bent the truth a little. May those pinches and the zaps be with you!

  16. you mean all those C60 buckyballs detected in space were formed by that nutty mechanism that you propose? Graphene is carbon nanotubes but why so much of it is out there defies comprehension. Buckyballs just don’t go floating in space without a reason. the fractal dimension is 2, and the magic number is 137 and called alpha. Alpha is the fundamental fine-structure constant that is of more scientific importance then c and newton’s gravitational constant. Alpha literally is shaped like a cosmic BAR MAGNET that fills the entire universe ! it aligns with the dark flow 150 billion light years away. This means gravity is not the God force believed by the big-bangers that forms shapes galaxies and superclusters. EM forces are vastly more influential. Earth’s magnetosphere and a stars global magnetic field are shaped like bar magnets too. Magnetic and electric fields are observable proven to exist, what is unproven and never found are : gravity waves, gravitons, dark matter, black holes, dark energy determination, and the ultimate big-bang theory of everything beginning that got started from two silly bell and howl scientists who over glorified themselves with ignorant pride

  17. The science channel has a new movie now “alien solar systems”, and astronaut Pettet discovered how planets form in zero gravity outer space ! Dust particles in water on earth REPELS and moves floats apart, each particle away from another . In outer space zero gravity, dust in water attracts collides and clumps together until small aggregates form minerals, rocks, boulders, and Planets ! All gravity in space, by the wave graviton particle duality, would travel at light speed, LBC said. the Gravitational Force between huge cosmological structures would travel in or thru zero gravity too, not like we observe happens on earth, and where water and ice is not so rare after all, especially inside huge molecular clouds and nebulas that attract more dust and gas by processes believed to be by Gravity, and not EM forces, which includes the van der wals force !

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