Using Satellites to Monitor Terrestrial Gamma Ray Flashes

Satellites can be used to see a wide variety of interesting things about our Earth, even some things that can’t be seen with the naked eye. One unique happening that can be caught by satellite images is the production of gamma rays by thunderstorms.

What are Terrestrial Gamma Ray Flashes?

The production of gamma rays by thunderstorms that can be seen by satellites are called terrestrial gamma ray flashes, or TGFs. These light bursts are incredibly high-energy and are often associated with tropical cyclones. These rays can’t be seen with the naked eye.

Scientists can monitor gamma rays with the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope from NASA. These technologies can be used to see gamma rays produced in space and near the surface of the earth.

How do Gamma Rays Occur?

Gamma ray flashes occur when electrons move quickly upwards in the atmosphere, nearly as fast as the speed of light. This electron avalanche causes friction with the passing air molecules, and the deflected electrons emit gamma rays.

A terrestrial gamma ray detected on August 3, 2014 over the Pacific Ocean west of Mexico. Image: J. Stevens, NASA with data from Roberts, O. J., et al. (2017).

A terrestrial gamma ray detected on August 3, 2014 over the Pacific Ocean west of Mexico. Image: J. Stevens, NASA with data from Roberts, O. J., et al. (2017).

With satellites, scientists are trying to figure out in what circumstances a thunderstorm would emit gamma rays. Researchers have been able to pinpoint where TGFs occur, and then put together a picture of what the weather patterns and storm patterns were at the time of the flash. Researchers have found that even small storms may produce many TGFs in a short period of time before developing into major storms.

Studying the Effect

Researchers who study gamma ray phenomena are also concerned with whether these flashes could negatively affect aircraft. TGFs have been found to occur as low as 8 or 9 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, which is lower than some aircraft fly. Since the gamma rays move upwards, it could cause problems for the electronics of a plane if a gamma ray hit it.

Fortunately, pilots avoid thunderstorms and therefore are much less likely to experience TGFs and other thunderstorm-related difficulties when they fly.

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