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Lasers Help Recreate Supernova Explosions In The Lab

Researchers have used STFC’s Vulcan laser facility to recreate scaled supernova explosions and investigate one of the most energetic events in the Universe. 

Supernova explosions, triggered when the fuel within a star reignites or its core collapses, launch a detonation shock wave that sweeps through several light years of space from the exploding star in just a few hundred years. But not all such explosions are alike and some, such as Cassiopeia A which is 11,000 light years from the Earth, show puzzling irregular shapes made of knots and twists.

To recreate a supernova explosion in the laboratory an international team, led by researchers from the University of Oxford, used the Vulcan laser facility at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory to investigate what might cause these peculiar shapes.

The team focused three laser beams onto a carbon rod target, not much thicker than a strand of hair, in a low density gas-filled chamber. The enormous amount of heat generated by the laser – more than a few million degrees Celsius – caused the rod to explode, creating a blast that expanded out through the low density gas.

Rob Clarke leads the Experimental Science group at STFC’s Central Laser Facility. He said, “The Oxford experiment is a great demonstration of the use of high power lasers for studying such astrophysical phenomena. Our laser, engineering and scientific staff are used to designing highly complex experiments which enable us to perform experiments at these extreme conditions within the laboratory.”

In the experiments the dense gas clumps or gas clouds that surround an exploding star were simulated by introducing a plastic grid to disturb and introduce turbulence into the expanding blast wave.

‘The experiment demonstrated that as the blast of the explosion passes through the grid it becomes irregular and turbulent, just like the images from Cassiopeia,’ said the University of Oxford’s Professor Gianluca Gregori, who led the study which has now been published in Nature Physics.

Funding for this research was provided by the European Research Council, STFC, and the US Department of Energy through the Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment (INCITE) program.

More information:

Marion O'Sullivan 
STFC Press Office
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
Tel. 01235 445627
Mobile 07824 888990

Notes to editors

A report of the research, entitled ‘Turbulent amplification of magnetic fields in laboratory laser-produced shock waves’, is published in Nature Physics on Sunday 1 June 18:00 BST/13:00 US EDT.

The international research team includes researchers from the University of Oxford, the University of Chicago, ETH Zurich, the Queen’s University Belfast, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the University of York, the University of Michigan, Ecole Polytechnique, Osaka University, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Strathclyde and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The STFC Central Laser Facility (CLF) is a partnership between its staff and the large number of members of UK and European universities who use the specialised laser equipment provided to carry out a broad range of experiments in physics, chemistry and biology. The CLF’s wide ranging applications include experiments in physics, chemistry and biology, accelerating subatomic particles to high energies, probing chemical reactions on the shortest timescales and studying biochemical and biophysical process critical to life itself.

Vulcan is a multi-beam laser facility which can combine long and short pulse beamlines up to Petawatt (1015 Watts) powers. The facility is available to the UK and international research community. This unique facility delivers a focused beam – which for 1 picosecond (0.000000000001 seconds) is 10,000 times more powerful than the National Grid – to support a wide-ranging programme in fundamental physics and advanced applications.

The scientific areas that are explored using the Vulcan facility include:

  • Interaction of super-high intensity light with matter
  • Physics of fusion energy research
  • Photo-induced nuclear reactions
  • Electron and ion acceleration by light waves
  • Astrophysics in the laboratory
  • Exploration of the exotic world of plasma physics dominated by relativity

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security. The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC operates or hosts world class experimental facilities including in the UK the ISIS pulsed neutron source, the Central Laser Facility, and LOFAR, and is also the majority shareholder in Diamond Light Source Ltd.

It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities by funding membership of international bodies including European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institut Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO). STFC is one of seven publicly-funded research councils.

It is an independent, non-departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

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