Captain Kirk had it right when he called space the final frontier! Whether it’s what constitutes dark matter or what causes pulsars to rotate, there are many questions left to answer. Luckily, the High-Energy Density Plasma Physics (HEDP) group at UCLA is currently working to solve some of these mysteries. They’re using a high-energy laser system to create the conditions needed for a phenomenon called astrophysical collisionless shocks. Basically, a dense plasma interacts with a highly magnetized plasma to produce shocks that have been found in things like supernova explosions and meteorite impacts.
Their high-energy laser system consists of three lasers named Phoenix, Raptor, and Peening. To give you an idea of how powerful these lasers are, the Raptor laser can hit a 0.1 mm target with a terawatt of power, which is roughly equivalent to the power produced by 1000 large nuclear power plants. Put another way, that’s comparable to focusing all of the sunlight hitting the Earth's surface onto your hand. (We don’t recommend doing that, for the record.)
Because the requirements needed to run these three lasers safely is beyond manual human control, the group turned to LabVIEW to design a software package that could control the laser system. They’re also using CompactRIO to monitor the lasers using cameras, scopes, and other diagnostics; control critical components like beam shutters, motors, and vacuum lines; and maintain the interlock safety system.
And if controlling insanely powerful lasers wasn’t cool enough, check out the user interface that one of the HEDP group members built from scratch for their system:
Look familiar? They modeled their GUI after LCARS, the computer operating system used in Star Trek. It took NPSC Graduate Fellow Derek Schaeffer about a month to build the basic graphical components needed to create LCARS frames, fonts, sounds (yes, there are sounds too), and standard controls. He completed most of the graphical designs using Microsoft PowerPoint and imported them as pictures into LabVIEW custom controls.