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The LCLS experiment also showed researchers how the electronic structure of the sample rearranged into non-conducting "islands" surrounded by electrically conducting regions, which began to form just hundreds of quadrillionths of a second after a laser pulse struck the sample.
The pulses of some lasers are so brief--a few quadrillionths of a second--that they can visually freeze the lightning-fast movements of molecules in a chemical reaction.
The object selected was a single bacterium, Spiroplasma Milliferum, made at 150-nanometer resolution and computer-refined to 75 nanometers, but requiring an exposure to the beam of just 15 femtoseconds (quadrillionths of a second).
The new device, which consistently generates pulses of light lasting just femtoseconds (quadrillionths of a second) in the ultraviolet region of the electromagnetic spectrum, was described in the May 20, 2005 issue of Physical Review Letters.
The laser pulse lasted only 150 femtoseconds, or 150 quadrillionths of a second.
Preliminary experiments from three countries indicate that when ultrashort light pulses (less than 40 quadrillionths of a second) are used, electrons might be accelerated by a novel mechanism in which laser light directly accelerates the electrons rather than indirectly through plasma oscillations.
A breakthrough in laser pulsing in 1987 led researchers to create femtosecond (quadrillionths of a second) laser bursts to track step-by-step specific details of chemical reactions-- bonding and decoupling, for example--as they are occurring.
But at about 50 quadrillionths of a second in duration, such short pulses can't deliver enough energy to remotely power an aircraft or burn a hole through an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile.
This forces the electrons to emit X-rays, which are gathered into laser pulses that are a billion times brighter than any available before, and fast enough to scan samples in quadrillionths of a second.
For example, researchers envision using both LCLS and atomic laser pulses in a synchronized one-two punch: The first laser triggers a change in a sample under study, and the second records with atomic-scale precision any changes that occurred within a few quadrillionths of a second.
Both methods suggest the proton has a radius of about 0.88 femtometers, or quadrillionths of a meter.