Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Illustration of Lasers Probing the Inside of a PlanetUnraveling the properties of fluid metallic hydrogen at the National Ignition Facility could help scientists unlock the mysteries of Jupiter’s formation and internal structure. Illustration by Mark Meamber

“From nuclear physics to colliding galaxies, the reach of NIF Discovery Science seems bounded only by our own intellectual imaginations.”

—Discovery Science Program Leader Bruce Remington

We haven’t invented mighty starships to physically transport us to distant planets and suns just yet. But NIF’s Discovery Science Program already provides scientists from around the world with powerful tools to explore matter at extraterrestrial conditions right here on Earth, while learning more about our home planet and helping to make our nation’s nuclear stockpile safe and reliable.

NIF’s 192 laser beams can simulate the extreme temperatures and crushing pressures found in those stars and planets. About 8 percent of NIF’s 400 experiments each year are set aside for these basic science campaigns that let researchers test what happens to different materials and elements under those conditions.

Members of a Discovery Science Program Proton Acceleration TeamMembers of a Discovery Science Program ARC proton acceleration team outside the NIF Control Room. Credit: Jason Laurea

More than 50 Discovery Science experimental campaigns involving more than 100 experiments have been conducted or planned. They involve teams from two dozen of the most prestigious universities, national labs, and research organizations in the United States, Europe, and Asia, often working in partnership with each other.

Members of a Discovery Science Program Collisionless Shock TeamBruce Remington (right) meets with the Discovery Science team studying astrophysical collisionless shocks on NIF. Clockwise from Remington are Mario Manuel (General Atomics), Samuel Totorica (Stanford University graduate student), Dmitri Ryutov (LLNL), Drew Higginson (LLNL), Hans Rinderknecht (University of Rochester), Youichi Sakawa (Osaka University), Chikang Li (MIT), and Hye-Sook Park (LLNL). Credit: Jason Laurea

The roster of teams, each working closely with an LLNL scientist, includes Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, Oxford, Princeton, MIT, Osaka University, the University of Rochester Laboratory for Laser Energetics, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the Atomic Weapons Establishment in the UK, the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, and General Atomics.

Photo of Nature CoverNature’s July 2014 cover story detailed NIF experiments.

These experiments create an academic pipeline by allowing students to experience first-hand all that NIF and LLNL have to offer. They also provide NIF scientists opportunities for peer review, prestigious publications, and broader collaborations.

One experiment recreated conditions that exist inside Jupiter, Saturn, and other planets. Another revealed how fluid hydrogen transforms into a metallic substance, bringing new insight into the structure and formation of giant planets and solar systems. And another campaign seeks to recreate conditions found inside stars.

Researchers have compressed a diamond sample to a record 50 million megabars—the pressure of 50 million Earth atmospheres. And they have created collisionless shocks to study astrophysical phenomenon such as supernova remnants, gamma-ray bursts, jets from active galactic nuclei, and cosmic-ray acceleration.

Discovery Science experiments also create the need for new diagnostic instruments, like TARDIS, NIF’s Target Diffraction In-Situ platform. Originally developed to investigate a new diamond-like crystal structure of carbon, the platform was later used to study the properties of uranium and plutonium for stockpile stewardship experiments.

Cryogenics Systems Operator Installs TargetA Cryogenics Systems operator installs the target for a Discovery Science experiment aimed at recreating intergalactic plasmas.

More information:

Understanding the Universe

“Discovery Science Strengthens NIF’s Mission”

“Laser Experiments Illuminate the Cosmos,” Science & Technology Review, December 2016

“NIF Users Bring Ideas and Energy to Discovery Science”

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