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Antimatter Factory on Sun Yields Clues to Solar Explosions
09.03.03
 
The best look yet at how a solar explosion becomes an antimatter factory gave unexpected insights into how the tremendous explosions work. The observation may upset theories about how the explosions, called solar flares, create and destroy antimatter. It also gave surprising details about how they blast subatomic particles to almost the speed of light.

Close-up of flare animationsolar flare

Images above: The two orange lines extending above the surface of the Sun represent oppositely directed magnetic field lines extending out into the solar corona. They move together and when they touch, break like overstretched elastic bands that reconnect above and below the break point, and accelerate particles to high energies. These particles travel down the field lines towards the surface, home of the solar antimatter factory (see close-up sequence). When they hit the surface, they produce the X-rays and gamma rays and heat the gas to over 20 million degrees. (Click on images for movie or high resolution still) Credit: NASA

Solar flares are among the most powerful explosions in the solar system; the largest can release as much energy as a billion one-megaton nuclear bombs. A team of researchers used NASA's Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI) spacecraft to take pictures of a solar flare on July 23, 2002, using the flare's high-energy X-rays and gamma radiation.

"We are taking pictures of flares in an entirely new color, one invisible to the human eye, so we expect surprises, and RHESSI gave us a couple already," said Dr. Robert Lin, a faculty member in the Dept. of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley, who is the Principal Investigator for RHESSI.

RHESSI images of flare X-RaysImage left: This July 23 flare tipped off scientists because the gamma rays (purple) were not emitted from the same locations as the X-rays (red and blue) as predicted. (Click on image for movie) Credit: NASA/ LMSAL/ BBSO

Gamma-rays and X-rays are the most energetic forms of light, with a particle of gamma ray light at the top of the scale carrying millions to billions of times more energy than a particle of visible light. The results are part of a series of papers about the RHESSI observation to be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters October 1.

Antimatter annihilates normal matter in a burst of energy, inspiring science fiction writers to use it as a supremely powerful source to propel starships. Current technology only creates minute quantities, usually in miles-long machines employed to smash atoms together, but scientists discovered the July 2002 flare created a half-kilo (about one pound) of antimatter, enough to power the entire United States for two days. According to the RHESSI images and data, this antimatter was not destroyed where expected.

SOHO View of Solar FlareImage left: Antimatter is generated beneath the flares after they accelerate particles. This is a view of the flare from the SOHO spacecraft. Click on left image for movie or 'mpg' version or high resolution still Credit: NASA / ESA

Antimatter is often called the "mirror image" of ordinary matter, because for every type of ordinary matter particle, an antimatter particle can be created that is identical except for an opposite electric charge or other fundamental properties.

Antimatter is rare in the present-day universe. However, it can be created in high-speed collisions between particles of ordinary matter, when some of the energy from the collision goes into the production of antimatter. Antimatter is created in flares when the fast-moving particles accelerated during the flare collide with slower particles in the Sun's atmosphere.

According to flare theory, these collisions happen in relatively dense regions of the solar atmosphere, because many collisions are required to produce significant amounts of antimatter. Scientists expected that the antimatter would be annihilated near the same places, since there are so many particles of ordinary matter to run into. "Antimatter shouldn't get far," said Dr. Gerald Share of the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C., lead author of a paper on RHESSI's observations of the antimatter destruction in the July 23 flare.

RHESSI spacecraftImage left: Launched on Feb. 5, 2002, the Ramaty High-Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI) spacecraft watches the Sun in X-rays and gamma rays. Credit: NASA

However, in a cosmic version of the shell game, it appears that this flare might have shuffled antimatter around, producing it in one location and destroying it in another. RHESSI allowed the most detailed analysis to date of the gamma rays emitted when antimatter annihilates ordinary matter in the solar atmosphere. The analysis indicates that the flare's antimatter might have been destroyed in regions where high temperatures made the particle density 1,000 times lower than where the antimatter should have been created.

"The result is as surprising as gold miners blasting a cliff face and discovering that the explosion threw all the dirt in one direction and all the gold in another direction," said Dr. Craig DeForest, a solar researcher at the South West Research Inst. Boulder, Colo.

The clue that tipped scientists off to this surprising behavior was the RHESSI observation that gamma rays from the July 23 flare were not emitted from the same locations that emitted the X-rays, as theory predicts. According to solar flare theories, electrons and ions are accelerated to high-speeds during the flare and race down arch-shaped magnetic structures. The electrons slam into the denser solar atmosphere near the two footpoints of the arches, emitting X-rays when they encounter electrically charged protons there that deflect them. Gamma rays should be emitted from the same locations when the high-speed ions also crash into these regions.

"Each new discovery shows we are only just beginning to understand what happens in these gigantic explosions," said Dr. Brian Dennis of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., who is the Mission Scientist for RHESSI. RHESSI was launched February 5, 2002, with the University of California, Berkeley, responsible for most aspects of the mission, and NASA Goddard responsible for program management and technical oversight.

Original GSFC Story

 
 
Bill Steigerwald
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center