To replicate the conditions of a white dwarf, the team first prepares hydrogen in a gas cell that is several centimeters across. This sample is then placed a foot away from a coil of tungsten wires, which lies at the heart of the Z machine. When a switch is thrown, 26 million amps of current rush through the wires, causing them to implode. A burst of X-rays streams out, quickly ionizing the gas in the cell. Winget's team collects spectra from this "little star" using fiber-optic cables.
As the team gathers data in the coming year, it hopes to improve the understanding of white dwarf stars, Winget said.
"This has been groundbreaking research," said plasma physicist Allan Wootton, also from UT Austin. "It was an unusual experience for these astronomers, but it has opened a door to new experiments that explore the conditions inside stars and other extreme environments."
Michael Shirber is a France-based science writer who has also written for Physical Review Focus, ScienceNOW, and Astrobiology Magazine