[/caption]We’ve all heard that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will collide particles together at previously unimaginable energies. In doing so, the LHC will recreate the conditions immediately after the Big Bang, thereby allowing us to catch a glimpse of what particles the Universe would have been filled with at this time. In a way, the LHC will be a particle time machine, allowing us to see the high energy conditions last seen immediately after the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago.
So, if we wanted to understand the conditions inside a giant exoplanet, how could we do it? We can’t directly measure it ourselves, we have to create a laboratory experiment that could recreate the conditions in the core of one of these huge exoplanet gas giants. Much like the LHC will recreate the conditions of the Big Bang, a powerful laser intended to kick-start fusion reactions will be used in an effort to help scientists have a very brief look into the cores of these distant worlds…
The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is ready for action. The facility will perform fusion experiments, hopefully making a self-sustaining nuclear fusion reaction a reality using an incredibly powerful laser (firing at a hydrogen isotope fuel). Apart from the possibility of finding a way to kick-start a viable fusion energy source (other laboratories have tried, but only sustained fusion for an instant before fizzing out), the results from the laser tests will aid the management of the US nuclear weapon stockpile (since there have been no nuclear warhead tests in 15 years, data from the experiments may help the military deduce whether or not their bombs still work).
Fusion energy and nuclear bombs to one side, there is another use for the laser. It could be used to recreate the crushing pressures inside a massive exoplanet so we can glean a better understanding of what happens to matter at these crushing depths.
The NIF laser can deliver 500 trillion watts in a 20-nanosecond burst, which may not sound very long, but the energy delivered is immense. Raymond Jeanloz, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, will have the exciting task of using the laser, aiming it at a small iron sample (800 micrometres in diameter), allowing him to generate a moment where pressures exceed a billion times atmospheric pressure. That’s 1000 times the pressure of the centre of the Earth.
On firing the laser, the heat will vaporize the iron, blasting a jet of gas so powerful, it will send a shock wave through the metal. The resulting compression is what will be observed and measured, revealing how the metal’s crystalline structure and melting point change at these pressures. The results from these tests will hopefully shed some light on the formation of the hundreds of massive exoplanets discovered in the last two decades.
“The chemistry of these planets is completely unexplored,” says Jeanloz. “It’s never been accessible in the laboratory before.”
Now that is one impressive laboratory experiment…
Source: New Scientist