About six years ago, atmospheric physicist, Joseph Dwyer, unintentionally flew his plane into a thundercloud, and right through a surprising pocket of antimatter. And although we know high-energy positrons - the antimatter equivalent of the electron - can be produced by cosmic rays making interaction with the atmosphere, or by mainly active lightning storms, what Dwyer spotted could not be clarified by either of these scenarios. Joseph Dwyer, from the University of New Hampshire in the US, told Davide Castelvecchi at Nature "This was so bizarre that we sat on this observation for many years," This unexpected flight in question took place on 21 August 2009, when Joseph Dwyer, then at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Florida, start out to spot gamma rays (γ-rays) - exceptionally high-frequency electromagnetic radiation made up of high-energy photons. He fitted a particle indicator on a Gulfstream V aircraft, and flew it along the shore of Georgia.
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Unluckily for Dwyer’s concerns, he came across a line of thunderstorms, and had no other choice but to fly right through them. Whenever we talk about a positron annihilating with an electron, we’re actually talking about when an electron and a positron strike and crush each other to produce gamma ray photons in a low-energy scenario, or particles like W and Z bosons in a high-energy scenario. As a form of antimatter, a positron will have characteristics that are the precisely opposite of what its 'ordinary matter' counterpart - the electron - has, counting an opposite electrical charge. While researchers ponder there was plenty of both matter and antimatter just after the Big Bang, antimatter particles have become extremely uncommon, because if they weren’t, we would be discovering way more of the significant bursts of energy that come with the procedure of annihilation.
And this great shortage only makes them harder to discover, because once we know they’re there, there’s so much ordinary matter around that they’ll be rapidly converted into something else completely. The three 511-kiloelectronvolt gamma-rays spikes that Dwyer verified during his flight through the thunderstorm were portion of a temporary cloud - measuring about 1 to 2 kilometres across - that trapped around long enough for Dwyer to soar right through. Now, six years later, he’s still working to work out why. Castelvecchi clarifies at Nature:
"Electrons discharging from charged clouds accelerate to close to the speed of light, and can produce highly energetic γ-rays, which in turn can generate an electron–positron pair when they hit an atomic nucleus. But the team did not detect enough γ-rays with sufficient energy to do this. Another possible explanation is that the positrons originated from cosmic rays, particles from outer space that collide with atoms in the upper atmosphere to produce short-lived showers of highly energetic particles, including γ-rays. ... But the motion of positrons would have created other types of radiation, which the team did not see."
Dwyer plans to carry on his search for what he spotted during that significant flight in 2009, but he's not pushing himself at danger this time. He's directing balloons up into thunderstorms instead to see what they can spot. Fortunately, balloons don't feel fear.