The preliminary work showed how much radiation was being emitted, but the size of the space it was produced in was unclear. With the current model, Dwyer's team was able to pinpoint the exposure dose that someone on an airplane would likely receive.
"This work is very important because it gets you into the zone where you start to understand how often and how likely they are to happen," said University of California Santa Cruz physics professor David Smith, who has worked with Dwyer but was not involved in the modeling work.
The next step, Smith said, is to start determining how often the flashes occur. Because the bursts are so brief -- about 10-100 of microseconds -- they are usually undetected, although it's possible you could see a diffuse, purple light, Dwyer said.
"Unless you have gamma ray detectors on board, no one would think anything of it," Smith said.
The National Science Foundation is currently working on an armored plane that could fly through thunderstorms, Smith said. If an instrument were placed on board, researchers may begin to get a better idea of the frequency of the flashes. Currently, the bursts are thought to occur much less frequently than the lightning we see, but that could mean anywhere from 1/100th to 1/1000th as often, Smith said.