Laser > GRB

By Phil Plait | April 10, 2008 8:00 am

Wow: New Scientist is reporting that scientists have created a laser that pound for pound is the brightest light source in the Universe.

It’s a petawatt laser, which is incredibly powerful (one petawatt is 1000 terawatts; peta is a prefix people will get to know in a year or two once terabyte drives prove too small to store very many illegally downloaded BluRay movies). The light of the laser is sent out in a very brief pulse, which has all that energy packed into it. So it’s short-duration, but incredibly bright. It’s actually got more intensity (energy per square centimeter) crammed into the pulse than a gamma-ray burst beam, which is insanely powerful.

This sort of thing has lots of uses in astronomy, oddly. It creates so much energy that it can be used to model what happens when a lot of energy slams into matter as it does in a supernova or GRB. It’s not well-understood what happens when matter absorbs energy on that scale, so it will be a useful test on theories.

Plus, it’s just cool. Chris Knight would be proud.

Tip o’ the heavily shielded goggles to BABloggee Dave, Just Dave.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Science

Comments (38)

  1. Chris

    I’d like to say, “you’ll shoot your eye out!” More likely you’ll just vaporize your whole head.

  2. Doc

    But can it make popcorn? How about really big swiss cheese?

  3. Charles

    When that movie came out, I had a YAG laser in my lab that was exactly the same one used as a prop in the film.

    We used to laugh at how they claimed they could get so much power out of a cavity so small. But hey, it was the 1980s and things have improved since then. The laws of physics do still apply, however.

  4. Rob P.

    “Short duration” seems to be something of an understatement. The article says that the pulse is only 100 femtoseconds.

  5. Improbus

    This is God, Kent. I know what you have been doing.

  6. Anne

    Total energy per pulse: 10 J. Whoopty-do. But they did manage to make the pulse really short, which is kind of neat.

  7. At first I envisioned the lab browning out the entire surrounding metropolitan area when they flipped it on. I imagined what the electric bill might be. Then I saw how short the pulse was. That is a seriously short burst they have going on.

    But then it gets me thinking about the energy that places like CERN, Fermilab and the Large Hadron Collider use (or *will*l use). Can anyone enlighten me (no pun intended)?

  8. madge

    They better have plenty coins for the metre! Or a frack of a lot of solar panels!
    First message SETI will receive will say “Turn that !*%^? light out!”

  9. viggen

    10 J per pulse

    Actually, the article said 200 J per pulse. As Rob said, about 100 fs (143 fs by my figuring).

    I think they may be overstating their case somewhat: lots of processes that exist in this universe are on longer time scales than that. Still, it’s plenty of power to see some incredible phenomenology. Achieving such a power is really cool and they will probably be able to intensify it yet as they decrease pulse duration. If I remember correctly, there are guys around here (between NIST and JILA in Boulder) that are getting close to attosecond pulses, which would increase this laser’s power by more than a hundred times.

  10. Pocket Nerd

    “All you’d need is a big spinning mirror and you could vaporize a human target from space!”

  11. Gareth

    Cool. We’re well on the way to converting the Earth into our very own Death Star then. Which planet shall we blow up first?

  12. I can think of some way better ways to help out astronomy with this. How about they shoot it at Rich Hoaglund or something?

  13. By my calculations, a pulse length of 100 femtoseconds means that the light “beam” is only 0.03 millimeters long – about the width of a human hair. That is a seriously short pulse!

  14. DPA

    hahah now that was an incredibly geeky old school reference. I actually just watched that a couple weeks ago.

  15. Todd W.


    “Which planet shall we blow up first?”

    If I wasn’t so fond of Mars, I would say a preemptive strike against it would be best. Can’t let Marvin take Earth out of the way just to improve his view of Venus.

  16. Ginger Yellow

    I think Brian Cox said that the LHC will use 150MW at full power, but that includes the magnets and the supercomputers. Wikipedia (pinch of salt and all that) says: “The size of the LHC constitutes an exceptional engineering challenge with unique safety issues. While running, the total energy stored in the magnets is 10 GJ, and in the beam 725 MJ.”

  17. J. D. Mack

    Why would the kid from The Brady Bunch be proud? ; )

    J. D.

  18. Michael Lonergan

    @Gareth: I vote the Twin Moons of Uranus.

    BTW, can this be used to signal ET?

  19. Bolo

    “It creates so much energy…”

    You mean, “so much power.” The energy is likely to be extremely low, while the power very high–the advantage of having a brief pulse. :)

  20. Wayne

    Cool, I’m glad they got it going full power. I was at a talk recently by one of the guys in charge of this thing, and he said they were “very close”.

    To follow up on Jacco’s statement, the guy said that the length of the beam was comparable to its width, so they are making “light bullets”. He used that phrase several times, and I think it’s a good way to think about these pulses.

  21. Blu-Ray-Ven

    “peta is a prefix people will get to know in a year or two once terabyte drives prove too small to store very many illegally downloaded BluRay movies”

    people better not illegally download me, thats rude

  22. Ow. Could you please warn us before you do that again? Thank you.

    The People of Haleakale

  23. Steve

    This may be the wrong place for this but…….

    Sure it’s powerful, but can it be mounted on the head of a shark?

  24. Charles

    I find it really ironic that the Google ad is for high power laser pointers.

  25. Joshua Zucker

    Is “more intensity (energy per square centimeter)” really true, or is it supposed to be “more intensity (energy per square centimeter per second)” or equivalently “(power per square centimeter)”?

  26. My wife’s comment:
    Phenomenal cosmic power! Itty bitty living space! (Thanks, Genie!)

  27. Grant

    So… is it like lasing a stick of dynamite?

    Does it get field under “H” for “Toy”?

    …wait, one more…

    Do the designers have this dream where they’re standing on top of a pyramid wearing these sun-god robes while millions of naked women scream and throw little pickles at them?

    Why am I the only one who has that dream?

  28. Edward

    What is a femto second? Iam lost below micro.

  29. Jasso


    Starting from deci:

    deci 10^-1
    centi 10^-2
    milli 10^-3
    micro 10^-6
    nano 10^-9
    pico 10^-12
    femto 10^-15
    atto 10^-18
    zepto 10^-21
    yocto 10^-24

  30. Davidlpf

    People who should not be allowed to use this laser Homer Simpson, Adam Savage, Tim Allen.

  31. Ed Davies

    “BTW, can this be used to signal ET?”


  32. Michael Lonergan

    Grant said:
    “Do the designers have this dream where they’re standing on top of a pyramid wearing these sun-god robes while millions of naked women scream and throw little pickles at them?”

    No, that’s my dream. They’re not screaming. They are laughing. Oh, the little pickles… well never mind about that.

  33. Gavin Flower

    I don’t think that ‘the heavily shielded goggles’ would help protect you against a direct hit from that laser!

  34. drksky

    “I don’t think that ‘the heavily shielded goggles’ would help protect you against a direct hit from that laser!”

    I can’t help help myself:

    “Ze goggles, ze do nothing!”

  35. Apologies for being nit-picky, but don’t you mean the _known_ universe, i.e. that which use Earthlings have seen? I’d hate to be on this planet if some extraterrestrial civilization thought “Ha! So they think they have the brightest light source in the universe! We’ll show them!”, followed up by a demonstration…

  36. The had a Pwatt laser years ago…. Call me when you get to 1000 P watt, atto sec., ultra chirped, kilo beam fusion.

  37. DaveKan

    Yeah, but can it hammer a six inch spike through a board with its…

  38. defectiverobot

    “Welcome to Bad Astronomy’s ‘Skeptologists on Ice!'”


    Ben Stein: “I’ve been giving myself shock treatments.”
    PZ Myers: “Up the voltage.”


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