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.
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.
© NASA - image of antimatter being emitted from clouds.
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." But the positrons in the storm seemed to somehow steer themselves towards the plane, and what force did that remains a mystery.
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.
Antimatter, in general, is extremely rare. 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. NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has recorded electrons in a thunderstorm accelerating to close to the speed of light. The electron-positrons then collide with an atom nucleus and emit gamma rays. (see video below) However, nothing has been seen on this level before.
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.