With the colossal Omega EP laser, the team at NSF’s Center for Matter at Atomic Pressures (CMAP) are simulating the intense pressures inside planets and stars. “Scientists from around the world queue up for months,” Adam Cole explains, “just for a chance to blast a tiny sample of matter with a laser beam.”
So far, the outcomes are astonishing: water transforms into hot black “supersonic” ice that could conduct electricity, hydrogen transitions into a metallic state, and sodium, typically soft and silvery, becomes transparent.
Learn more as Cole goes on a journey to the Earth’s core, then out to the heart of the sun and back, in this Vox video: “Something weird happens when you keep squeezing.” From the video caption:
“Physicists have a pretty good handle on how stuff behaves on the surface of the Earth. But a lot of matter in the universe exists outside this narrow band of relatively low temperatures and pressures. Inside planets and stars, the crushing force of gravity begins to overwhelm the electromagnetic and nuclear forces that keep atoms apart and maintain the shapes of molecules.”
How does the simulation work? Inside the laser, a miniscule piece of sample material is sandwiched between a window and an ablator or heat shield. The laser hits the ablator, exploding into a superheated ionized gas. Chemistry grad student Alexa Lapierre explains that “plasma blows off of the surface like a rocket.”
“And that creates this buildup of pressure that forms a shockwave. And that shockwave really quickly travels through the material.”
For a fraction of a second, the laser simulates the conditions found deep within planetary and stellar cores.
But this work isn’t just about incredibly cool experiments, it’s about understanding the universe’s deepest secrets. As each split-second experiment contributes to the puzzle, our understanding of physics evolves, and scientists learn that there’s much more to uncover in the realm of extreme pressures and extraordinary matter transformations.
For example, could we create a boundless source of clean, cheap energy if we could recreate the nuclear fusion that occurs naturally within stars like our Sun?
Watch more videos about pressure and gravity, including:
• What happens inside an artificial gravity lab?
• Extreme Gs in a centrifuge – Simulating gravity on other planets
• This is What Outer Space Does to Your Body
• What happens when you put marshmallows in a vacuum?
• Kari Byron makes a cloud in a bottle
• A solid, liquid, & gas at the same time: The Triple Point
Also from Vox and CMAP: What have we found while looking for another Earth?
Thank you, Jason.