Emulating Stars

Credit: Randy Montoya

Credit: Randy Montoya

Traditionally, astrophysics has been a science of observations, not experiments. How in the world (literally) can researchers conduct tests involving celestial bodies hundreds of light years away, far hotter and denser than anything on our planet? 

It sounds impossible, but researchers in The University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Astronomy conduct experiments that recreate the physical conditions of stars. To replicate the extreme temperatures and densities of plasma, the stuff inside stars, astronomers Don Winget and Mike Montgomery are leading a team that makes use of Sandia National Laboratories’ Z Machine, the world’s most powerful laboratory generator of X-rays.

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Electricity charges massive capacitors, which store and then release charges in microseconds. The capacitors compress the electricity into tight pulses, flowing into containers holding gas. 

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The gas is ionized with lasers, further compressing pulses into finer spaces and shorter increments of time.

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Finally, the electricity flows into a delicate array of tungsten wires clustered together in a central compartment the size of a spool of thread. 

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For just nanoseconds, the X-ray energy generated by the magnetically imploded plasma is far greater than all the energy released by all the power plants in the world.

The result is a tiny chunk of a star.

Watch to see more on the team making star stuff and how they inspired one artist’s recent work.