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Satellites track strange 'Earth energy'

Feb. 22, 2005 at 10:05 PM   |   Comments

SANTA CRUZ, Calif., Feb. 22 (UPI) -- U.S. scientists said they have observed in detail a source of high-energy gamma rays that originate on Earth, not from outer space.

Scientists using NASA's High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager satellite said they have detected flashes of gamma-ray energy in the planet's upper atmosphere. The satellite was designed to study X-rays and gamma rays from solar flares, but it also can detect gamma rays from a variety of sources.

The scientists, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and elsewhere said the energy bursts are called terrestrial gamma-ray flashes, or TGFs. They are very short blasts of gamma rays, lasting about one-thousandth of a second and emitted into space by electrons traveling at 99.99 percent of the speed of light.

Originally discovered in 1994, the origin of TGFs has remained a mystery. The best guess at present is they are generated by the build-up of electrical charges at the tops of thunder clouds due to lightning discharges.

TGFs have been correlated with lightning strikes, the scientists said.

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