Scientists are using football-field-sized lasers, warehouse-sized electromagnets and other immense facilities to reveal the deep secrets of planetary interiors
About 25 years ago astronomers kicked off what would come to be called the “exoplanet revolution” with the discovery of the first alien world orbiting another sunlike star. As the pace of discovery quickened and new data came pouring in, it became clear that the cosmos is awash in planets—big planets, small planets, planets broiled by their stars or frozen in the outskirts of their systems and, overwhelmingly, planets that in size and orbit are unlike anything we have in the solar system. In the span of just a quarter-century, humankind went from knowing essentially no worlds beyond our solar system to having thousands in our catalogs. Yet even with all this progress, we still remain in the dark about the true nature of most of these worlds—and their possibilities for life. Absent some breakthrough in physics that allows practical interstellar travel, it appears unlikely we will ever visit any exoplanet, let alone several, so definitive answers to our fundamental questions about them have long seemed beyond our reach.
Now, however, new technologies and collaborations are taking the exoplanet revolution a surprising step further—not out to the stars but rather into the depths of cutting-edge plasma physics laboratories. Using football-field-sized lasers, warehouse-sized electromagnets and other extreme machines, scientists from across disciplines are bringing some of their loftiest questions about exoplanets down to Earth, abandoning telescopes to gain deeper, more direct views into the hearts of alien worlds.