The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is the world's most powerful laser system as well as the largest optical instrument ever built. Housed in a ten-story building the size of three football fields and containing nearly 60 miles of mirrors, fiber optics, crystals, and light amplifiers, it is an extraordinary technical accomplishment.
With its millions of parts and 60,000 points of control--30 times as many as on the space shuttle--NIF is a precision colossus. Its 192 laser arms are aligned to within 100 microns. They were largely assembled by robots to keep them super clean, and they must converge within a few microns and a few billionths of a second of one another in order to create and evanescent star within the laboratory.
NIF is scheduled to begin experiments in 2010 that will focus nearly two million joules of ultraviolet energy from giant lasers into a tiny gold cylinder called a hohlraum, which will generate a "bath" of soft X-rays that will compress a tiny hollow capsule filled with deuterium and tritium to 100 times the density of lead.
* Photographic credit is given to Lawrence Livermore National Security, LLC, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Department of Energy under whose auspices this work was performed.