What a laser a billion times brighter than the sun can illuminate about light

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Jun 28, 2017

Since you first opened your eyes, you’ve been warned not to look directly in the sun—but our star is nothing compared to this superpowered laser.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln just executed a really bright idea of an experiment that could eventually illuminate things we could never before see about the nature of light and even the cosmos. While laser-focused math has predicted the outcome of this experiment in theory, this is the first time the results were confirmed in a lab with an actual laser.

Using the Diocles Laser at the university’s Extreme Light Laboratory, the team fired pulses of light one billion times more intense than the solar surface at a microscopic target. This is no ordinary laser. Diocles is an array of optical equipment that takes up the entire room and can blast enough power to out-power all existing power plants combined. Think enough to switch on trillion light bulbs. Set this thing off, and it produces bursts of light that blaze and fade in less than a trillionth of a second. When that power is concentrated into an insanely small space (think a millionth of a meter), it amps brightness like you wouldn’t believe.

Zapping a stream of electrons that intersected the laser beam illuminated the behavior of photons when they collide with a single electron. At a level of brightness that makes shades beyond useless, photons go wild. Light gets scattered by the unimaginably bright laser when its intensity shakes up electron alignment. The electrons reshuffle into a figure eight, firing off photons of varying shapes and wavelengths at every random angle, oscillating at nearly the speed of light in a pattern very different from that observed in light not as intense. Photon scattering can actually change the way objects are perceived. Something so bright as the Diocles laser can actually illuminate things that would otherwise be invisible to the naked eye.

The Diocles Laser experiment yielded light scattering as intense as that which occurs in supernovae.

“Scattering of super-bright light also occurs naturally out in the cosmos, during supernova explosions of massive stars,” said Extreme Light Laboratory head and team lead Donald Umstadter, whose findings were recently published the journal Nature Photonics. “We can now study this fundamental phenomenon here on Earth in our laboratory.”

Photons ejected by brightly lit electrons can also produce 3D images more mind-blowingly accurate than ever and act like powerful X-rays that have unprecedented penetrating ability, making them useful for semiconductors and airport security and potentially highlighting tumors and microfractures that would have previously been impossible to identify.

So next time you pack your carry-on, just remember that it could be inspected by X-ray vision that could rival Superman's.

(via Seeker)