The Atomic Movie Machine

Scientists double down on an X-ray laser that can re-create a star’s interior and catch photosynthesis in action.

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In the summer of 2010, Oxford University physicist Justin Wark flew to Northern California to study the interiors of stars. The instrument he sought there was not a telescope, but rather a new kind of laser, more than 3,500 feet long and capable of emitting X-rays a billion times brighter than anything ever generated on Earth. It was worth the airfare. In the 60 hours he spent bombarding metal foils with X-rays — creating analogs to stellar plasma, or ionized gas — Wark pulled more data than he had from any single experiment in a quarter century.

It was remarkable that the machine worked at all; nobody had ever made this kind of laser at any scale. Everything about the enormous Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) was a gamble, says LCLS Director Mike Dunne.

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