The effect of laser contrast and target thickness on laser-plasma interactions at the Texas Petawatt
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A two-year experimental campaign is described during which diamond-like carbon and plastic targets with thicknesses from 20 nanometers to 15 micrometers were irradiated by the Texas Petawatt Laser. Target composition and thickness were varied to modify the specifics of the laser-matter interaction. Plasma mirrors were selectively implemented to affect the contrast of the laser system and provide additional control of the physical processes under investigation. A number of particle diagnostics were implemented to measure the distribution of laser accelerated ions and electrons. In addition, optical diagnostics were fielded to measure the intensity profile of the laser and measure the density of the target pre-plasma. The results of these experiments suggest that the Texas Petawatt laser pulse has pre-pulse and pedestal features with intensities at least 10⁻⁸ of the main pulse. Micronscale targets were able to survive these features and maintain a relatively sharp density gradient until the arrival of the main laser pulse, allowing for ion acceleration. Electron spectra measured in this configuration show an average temperature of 10 MeV, with no v angular dependence out to at least 60 degrees. By contrast, interferometric plasma density measurements and a lack of any observable ion acceleration suggest that nanoscale targets were destroyed well before the main pulse. In this case, the peak of the laser pulse interacted with a cloud of plasma between 10⁻³ and 10⁻² of critical density. The contrast improvement offered by the implementation of plasma mirrors was seen to increase the maximum energy of laser accelerated protons from targets thicker than 1 micrometer. In addition, the plasma mirrors allowed nanoscale targets to survive pre-pulse and pedestal features and support the production of ion beams. Proton spectra show that ions were accelerated to greater maximum energies from nanoscale targets than from more traditional micron-scale targets. This effect can be attributed to a reduction in the target pre-plasma scale length upon the introduction of plasma mirrors. These results indicate that the manipulation of target properties and laser contrast can significantly affect the interaction between an ultrahigh intensity laser and a target.
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