Researchers used laser beams 60,000 billion times more powerful than a laser pointer to recreate scaled supernova explosions in the laboratory as a way of investigating 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 a few light years of space from the exploding star in just a few hundred years.
To investigate what may cause these peculiar shapes an international team led by Oxford University scientists (groups of Professor Gianluca Gregori of Oxford University’s Department of Physics and Professor Bell in Atomic and Laser Physics, and Professor Schekochihin in Theoretical Physics) has devised a method of studying supernova explosions in the laboratory instead of observing them in space.
To recreate a supernova explosion in the laboratory the team used the Vulcan laser facility at the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Lab. ‘Our team began by focusing three laser beams onto a carbon rod target, not much thicker than a strand of hair, in a low density gas-filled chamber,’ said Ms Jena Meinecke an Oxford University graduate student, who headed the experimental efforts.
The enormous amount of heat generated more than a few million degrees Celsius by the laser caused the rod to explode creating a blast that expanded out through the low density gas. In the experiments the dense gas clumps or gas clouds that surround an exploding star were simulated by introducing a plastic grid to disturb the shock front.
‘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 Professor Gregori.
‘We found that the magnetic field is higher with the grid than without it. Since higher magnetic fields imply a more efficient generation of radio and X-ray photons, this result confirms that the idea that supernova explosions expand into uniformly distributed interstellar material isn’t always correct and it is consistent with both observations and numerical models of a shockwave passing through a ‘clumpy’ medium.’