One of the things that’s really exciting in the modern lightning field is that we’re starting to realise that there are things happening in the lightning discharge that we don’t understand or that we’re only just starting to understand.
So there’s the big electric field, you get the spark forming, you get the lightning discharge, the sound waves, the radio wave. Relatively recently, we’ve started to realise that, coming out of the top of thunderstorms at the same time as the lightning discharge, there are beams of X-rays and gamma rays – really, really, really high-energy particles.
And there’s evidence for the production of anti-matter inside or possibly just above thunderstorms – we’re still arguing about that –and that the satellites that are flying through space above the atmosphere every now and again are being zapped by high-energy particles coming out of the top of a thunderstorm. It’s complicated stuff, but it’s all really recently discovered and really fascinating.
That’s one of the things that’s surprising that, in a lightning discharge, there is anti-matter being produced. We can make anti-matter on Earth, but it requires an awful lot of energy and an awful lot of effort. And so it’s really quite fascinating to think that it’s being naturally produced in very small quantities in a lightning discharge, then that anti-matter moves a small distance, bumps into some of the atmosphere [claps his hands], explodes and destroys itself, and that’s where the beam of X-rays and gamma rays comes out – part of that explosion and energy.
Associate Professor Craig Rodger, University of Otago, Department of Physics
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center