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Laser Meets Lightning

On August 18, 2011, as ESO tested the new Wendelstein laser guide star unit by shooting a powerful laser beam into the atmosphere, one of the region’s intense summer thunderstorms was approaching. With purely coincidental timing this photograph was snapped just as lightning flashed. Laser guide stars are artificial stars created 90 km up in the Earth’s atmosphere using a laser beam. Measurements of this artificial star can be used to correct the blurring effect of the atmosphere in astronomical observations — a technique known as adaptive optics.The laser in this photograph is a powerful one, with a 20-watt beam, but the power in a bolt of lightning peaks at a trillion (one million million) watts, albeit for just a fraction of a second. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser Rosenheimer Str. 145H, 81671 München, Germany

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