lasers in space

One of the most fascinating recent developments regarding laser technology has been the reports of a laser capable of “ripping apart empty space.” While this laser’s capabilities are impressive, let’s take a look at what researchers are attempting to achieve with it and why “ripping apart space” isn’t a good definition of their laser’s abilities.

Station of Extreme Light

As reported by Newsweek, Chinese physicists are looking to “break the vacuum” by creating a laser that can pull particles out of empty space. This laser, known as the Station of Extreme Light, or SEL, is currently being constructed and will be designed to be 100 petawatts in strength.

Previously, in 2016, the first laser pulse of more than 5 petawatts was created by China’s Shanghai Superintense Ultrafast Laser Facility, with the crossing of the 10-petawatt threshold being sought for 2018. Should the ambitious 100-petawatt mark be reached it will not only highlight a significant leap in laser technology, but will show that matter and energy are interchangeable, as Einstein theorized with his E=mc2 equation.

Some other key facts about this development:

  • A 100-petawatt pulse would only last for less than one-trillionth of a second, but it would carry over 1,000 times the power found in all the electrical grids throughout the world combined.
  • Should the laser prove successful, it would be converting light into matter. SEL physicist Ruxin Li stated to Science Magazine that this would in effect “generate something from nothing.”
  • As reported by Science Alert, the power of laser bursts can be boosted by “increasing their energy or shortening their duration.” The increasing of energy has been a focus in the field in the past, but many current researchers are now focusing on shortening pulse duration.
  • It is believed by researchers that a very short, very powerful laser would be capable of pulling particles out of empty space before they have an opportunity to collide and destroy each other.

While these are all interesting points and the SEL’s proposed capabilities would be greatly impressive, what of the claim made by various publications that the laser would “rip apart empty space”?

Ripping Apart Space

As astrophysicist and Forbes contributor Ethan Siegel notes, the 1-petawatt threshold for lasers was only crossed in 1996, with the 10-petawatt threshold taking a further two decades to accomplish.

Though he allows that crossing the 100-petawatt threshold would be a remarkable feat, he disputes the notion of the Station of Extreme Light laser being capable of ripping apart space.

“This [the laser] opens the door to a long-sought-after opportunity to create particle-antiparticle pairs where there were none before, but it’s hardly ‘breaking the quantum vacuum.”

He goes on to state:

“In any case, the quantum vacuum never breaks, but rather does exactly what you expect of it: responds to matter and energy in accordance with the laws of physics. It might not be intuitive, but it’s something even more powerful: it’s predictable. The art of doing that prediction and doing the experiments to verify or refute them is what science is all about!”

Even though some articles may be overstating things a bit, there’s no doubt that the potential advances the SEL laser will provide could lead to some great scientific breakthroughs! Be sure to keep your eye on this one.

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