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The world’s largest X-ray laser is one step closer to completion

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European XFEL X-ray will let scientists capture images of atomic elements on a previously unimaginably tiny scale.

The world’s largest X-ray laser is one step closer to completion after researchers at Germany’s Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) announced that they’ve passed a major milestone in its development.

The laser, known as the European XFEL, will one day let scientists capture images of atomic elements on a previously unimaginably tiny scale. That’s thanks to the European XFEL’s ability to flash up to 27,000 X-ray laser illuminations in one second. These flashes are so brief and so intense that they’ll allow researchers to take pictures of structures and processes down to an atomic level.

The milestone hit this week involved successfully firing electrons through a particle accelerator measuring a whopping 2.1 kilometers in length. The entire X-ray laser measures 3.4 km.

“The European XFEL’s particle accelerator is the first superconducting linear accelerator of this size in the world to go into operation,” Helmut Dosch, chairman of the DESY board of directors, said in a statement. “With the commissioning of this complex machine, DESY and European XFEL scientists have placed the crown on their 20-year engagement in developing and building this large international project. The first experiments are within reach, and I am quite excited about the discoveries ahead of us. I am exceptionally happy about arriving at this milestone and congratulate all involved for the outstanding work and their great tenacity.”

The superconducting particle accelerator of the European XFEL has taken seven years of development to get to this point. After this week’s milestone, the next step for the project involves increasing the energy of the electrons, prior to them being sent into the machine’s “magnetic slalom” section, where the X-ray laser light will ultimately be generated. The hope is that this will take place in May.

Of course, the biggest question is how long until the European XFEL shows up as the setting of a Dan Brown thriller? We’re giving it two years. Three, tops.