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.

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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