Buzz Blog

Shocking Study from the Largest Cosmic Ray Physics Experiment in the Northern Hemisphere

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Lightning detector in the foreground with
a cosmic ray detector in the background.
Credit: William Hanlon, University of Utah
There’s a chance that the mystifying phenomena we call lightning would not exist without cosmic aid. The same high-energy particles that light the night sky with colorful auroras, scientists think could also explain a longstanding problem in the process of lightning production.

When you shock yourself after reaching for a metal doorknob, you’re experiencing a similar process that leads to lightning. As long as the extra charge you accumulate from, for example, rubbing your feet across a carpeted surface reaches a minimum value, called the breakdown voltage, a shock will travel from you to the doorknob.

Storm clouds can also build up extra charge, which must go somewhere. Often times it will either strike the ground or branch outward across the sky in the form of a lightning bolt. However, scientists have yet to find a way to explain how storm clouds build up enough extra charge to electrically illuminate the sky.

“The cloud has to charge to a certain amount so spontaneous discharge can happen,” said Helio Takai, a physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. “What [scientists] measure is not enough charge for this spontaneous discharge to happen.”

The solution might lie with cosmic rays, high-energy particles that enter Earth’s atmosphere from far-off sources, most of which are outside of our solar system.

About twenty years ago, physicist Alex Gurevich at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow proposed that cosmic rays could lead to lightning. So far, finding a correlation has been easier said than done and scientists are still uncertain whether the two phenomena are linked and at what point in the process cosmic rays might be important for lightning production.

Takai is hot on the hunt with help from a team of scientists at University of Utah, New Mexico Tech and Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan. The team is using the largest cosmic ray physics experiment in the northern hemisphere, the Telescope Array, and a series of nearby lightning monitor stations to see if measurements from both will throw some light on the mystery.

Takai will be presenting the team’s results this weekend at the APS April Meeting in Savannah, Georgia.

Panorama of the lightning detector at the left and cosmic ray detector in the middle. Credit: William Hanlon, University of Utah.

When cosmic rays enter the atmosphere, they interact with the molecules in the air by stripping them of some of their electrons. These free electrons go on to liberate yet more electrons in what scientists call a runaway breakdown effect. The remaining ions charge up the atmosphere.

But is that extra charge enough to account for the missing amount in storm clouds that scientists need to explain lightning formation?

The answer to that question might get help from the team’s research. The lightning monitors, built by scientists at New Mexico Tech, work by detecting radio pulses of lightning discharges. If the Telescope Array site based in Utah measures a shower of high-energy particles around the same time the lightning monitoring stations detect a lightning bolt, it could point to a correlation.

Utah is not the stormiest of states, especially in Millar County which is mostly covered by the Sevier Desert and where the Telescope Array is based. Last year the team collected what measurements they could from the few storms that hit the region. That data is still being analyzed, said Takai who remains optimistic about the work.


“New Mexico Tech … have developed the coolest lightning detection system I know. They can reconstruct lightning in 3D,” Takai said. “Telescope Array is the largest cosmic ray detector on the northern hemisphere and I think this is a good opportunity to perform this kind of study.”

Takai is also interested in exploring another component of lightning. This second aspect deals with what lightning produces instead of what produces lightning.

“The second part of this research has to do with the opposite phenomena that has been observed by satellites,” he said. “In this case what was observed is an increase in high energy gamma ray activity when lightning is formed.”

Last year, Joseph Dwyer, a physicist at Florida Institute of Technology, reported an explanation for this phenomenon and the potential threat such gamma-ray flashes pose to aircraft. He expressed excitement in Takai’s work.

“Our understanding of how cosmic-rays interact with thunderstorm electric fields is not perfect, and so it is certainly worth doing such observations," Dwyer said. "I will be very interested to learn about what they have seen.”
Posted by Unknown


Anonymous said...

Exactly !

Saturday, April 12, 2014 at 12:07 AM

Helio Takai said...

Interesting comments and relevant to the discussion! The problem that we are studying is restricted to lightning associated to storm clouds at lower altitudes. They that produce lightning at reasonably lower altitudes. Storm clouds charge because of convection current. If you measure the electric field within storm clouds it is much less than required for a spontaneous discharge, so something else must trigger the discharge. Of course it is a bit of a simplistic view because there are electrical current within clouds. Now, the cosmic rays we are interested are the high energy ones that produce particle showers at altitudes of 10 km or less, much lower than the ionosphere. These can potentially help initiate discharge as it momentarily ionizes air and molecules within storm clouds. The second problem that we are studying is where high energy gamma rays are produced when the discharge happens. We observed a good correlation between gamma ray bursts (detected by the telescope array) and lightning data from the national lightning detection network (NLDN). The correlation is both in time and position, with an precision of about 500 m, but lightning strikes are much larger than that. Although we see correlation we still don't know when and where within lightning this emission happens as lightning can propagate for several kilometers. So maybe later this year we will have more data. The question of sprites, jets and elves as raised in one of the comments is also relevant to the discussion. The difference would be that this type of lightning closes the circuit to the ionosphere, instead of to the ground. It would be very interesting to study these but we will start with the more common forms of lightning first. As Spock would say, this entire subject is Fascinating.

Friday, April 11, 2014 at 10:06 AM

ismael_34 said...

you know that Colombia is the country's largest com-ray Fallen World

Thursday, April 10, 2014 at 7:24 PM

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Dr. U-Yen's speech very much, along with Ben Davidson, it has become a great discussion. It is apparent to me why so many cultures throughout the history of mankind worshiped the sun along with the stars and planets. They affect our delicate condition much more than is currently believed by most. Both talks are free to watch on Youtube.

Thursday, April 10, 2014 at 1:23 PM

Anonymous said...

Thursday, April 10, 2014 at 12:18 PM

Ostar said...

Well said indeed Pete! And it seems like he has been over to TBP. This presentation already happened, anyone have their conclusions?

Thursday, April 10, 2014 at 11:21 AM

phil the fish said...

It would be a lot quicker to know what is going on if you ask the scientists and researchers connected to the Thunderbolts Project-

Tuesday, April 8, 2014 at 1:25 PM

Michael Clarage said...

great comment Peter. I have thought along similar lines. Maybe we could compare notes.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014 at 1:22 PM

Anonymous said...

cosmic rays are typically high energy particles that arrive at angles indicating sources outside the solar system. Auroras are caused by the variable stream of solar mass ejection colloquially called solar wind, but solar plasma would be a more accurate description. Both of these phenomenon are similar in they connect planet Earth to a much larger electric current potential than could be achieved through convection in the troposphere alone. Attempting to corolate a lightning strike to a cosmic ray event is like corolating the ejection of a bullet from the muzzle of a gun to the tension on the spring of the hammer. Only by examining the quiet double layers built up in the stratosphere and the ionosphere above the clouds where the anvil meets can we understand lightning and its close cousin the charged sheath vortex aka tornado. Don't forget big sister hurricane and grand cosmic diety Gamma Ray Burst.

Friday, April 4, 2014 at 8:34 AM