How to Make a Supernova With Lasers, Lavender-Tinted Glass, and a Carbon Rod
Check out some star destroyers at the Orion laser facility.
Supernovas, the explosive deaths of massive stars, are among the most spectacular events in the universe, and the progenitors of heavy elements that sustain life on Earth (and perhaps elsewhere too). Because these self-detonations are extremely luminous, astronomers often spot them out in the cosmic wilds, but it is difficult to get a closer, more detailed glimpse of supernovas located thousands, or even millions, of light years away.
One answer to this conundrum? Blowing up millimeter-scale carbon rods with super-powered lasers through lavender-tinted glass, thereby simulating stellar explosions in a laboratory setting. The Orion laser facility, established in 2013 at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in the town of Aldermaston, United Kingdom, has become a leading purveyor of these supernovas-in-miniature.
In a video posted on Monday by the Royal Society, University of Oxford astrophysicist Jena Meinecke gives a virtual tour of the Orion complex, complete with its cluster of simulated star destroyers. It is part of a batch of new documentaries released in anticipation of the Royal Society's Summer 2017 Exhibition, which runs from July 4 to July 9 in London.
Tour of the Orion laser facility. Video: Royal Society/YouTube
"The Orion laser can deliver 1,000 times the power of the entire US national grid in just a fraction of a second, over an area smaller than a strand of hair," Meinecke points out in the short documentary. "Once the target is blown up by the lasers, it drives a strong shock wave into the chamber, mimicking the violent processes found in space."
Simulated Orion supernova. GIF: Royal Society/YouTube
The Orion facility is not the only instrument that can create simulated star-deaths; Meinecke and her colleagues also exploded a carbon rod into a tiny supernova in 2014, at the Vulcan laser facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, United Kingdom. But when it comes to giant lasers that can replicate terminal stellar pyrotechnics, the more the merrier.
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