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Picture of the Day

'Optical rocket' created with intense laser light

In a recent National Science Foundation-funded experiment, plasma electrons in the paths of intense laser light pulses were almost instantly accelerated close to the speed of light. The researchers said the new application might aptly be called an "optical rocket"; because of the tremendous amount of force that light exerted in the experiment. The electrons were subjected to a force almost a trillion-trillion-times greater than that felt by an astronaut launched into space. The optical rocket is the latest example of how the forces exerted by light can be used as tools. Normal intensity light exerts a tiny force whenever it reflects, scatters or is absorbed. One proposed application of this force is a "light sail" that could be used to propel spacecraft. Yet because the light force is exceedingly small in this case, it would need to be exerted continuously for years for the spacecraft to reach high speed. Another type of force arises when light has an intensity gradient. One application of this light force is an "optical tweezer" that is used to manipulate microscopic objects.

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