In a first, scientists have recreated the effects of supernovae – violent star deaths – within the confines of their laboratory, using one of the largest, most intense lasers on the planet. One of the most extreme astrophysical events, Supernova explosions are the violent deaths of certain stars that scatter elements heavier than hydrogen and helium into surrounding space.
Our own solar system is thought to have formed when a nearby supernova exploded distributing these elements into a cloud of hydrogen that then condensed to form our Sun and the planets. In fact, the very atoms that make up our bodies were formed in the remnants of such an explosion.
Researchers from the University of Oxford and Imperial College London in the UK demonstrated their research at the week-long Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition.
Witnessing and getting to grips with these experiments can help people to understand the inner workings of the Universe, researchers said. Their ‘How to make a supernova’ exhibit highlighted how powerful lasers can help us understand and appreciate the origins of the universe. The team was able to mimic some the properties of these supernovae in the laboratory by using one of the most powerful lasers on Earth.
Each output pulse from the laser only lasts for a few billionths of a second, but, in that time, the power it generates is equivalent to the output of the electricity grid of the whole planet.
The extremes of density and temperature produced by the lasers allow scientists to study how the supernova acts when it expands into space, and can also provide insight into how high energy particles from space are produced, how the magnetic field in the galaxy formed, and what the interior of a giant planet might look like.
“Our research is helping us better understand some of the most powerful natural processes known to humankind, and more importantly, the origins of our universe,” said Jena Meinecke, Junior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford.