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Adapting the Laboratory for Laser Energetics to the Pandemic

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Many of us have experienced what it's like to work remotely over the past year, but not everyone works at a facility that houses one of the largest lasers in the world. So, how do researchers that would normally travel to the Laboratory for Laser Energetics accomplish their work remotely?

On March 18, 2020, the facility went on a safe standby in accordance with New York State's PAUSE order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. From that day until they were able to safely reopen two months later, the staff at the LLE went to work on a plan for how they would conduct experiments with restricted access to the facility.

The innovations ranged from creating more physical distance for staff members inside the building, to developing new software tools to ensure they could continue to operate with the normal schedule of a laser shot occurring every 45 minutes throughout the day, even with principal investigators only able to join remotely.

A year later, the LLE continues to operate with scientists from all over the world, but instead of the investigators coming to the LLE, the LLE has come to them. Communication is handled between remote locations and staff throughout the facility from an enhanced video stream they call ShotStream. This allows principal investigators to keep in constant contact with LLE staff, wherever they are in the building. Built into the video stream are other tools such as diagnostics to help position targets and understand the results of the experiment.

Another challenge is delivering the high-resolution imaging required for principal investigators to discern what took place during the experiment, and what adjustments need to be made before the next shot. Due to the nature of the experiments, many images need to be captured on x-ray or other types of film and then processed in a darkroom. Under normal operations, researchers would crowd into darkroom around the freshly processed film and assess what adjustments are needed for the next shot. The pandemic made this impossible.

With these shots coming every 45 minutes, there is little time to process and scan the films at a high enough resolution and quickly deliver the rather large files over the internet. Innovations in the way film is processed, scanned, and delivered allowed for just the right balance of resolution and speed of delivery so that the shot schedule could be accomplished without sacrificing the quality of the experiments.

As things slowly begin to return to normal, there is the hope that soon there will be more activity inside the building from researchers near and far. Even after the pandemic restrictions have lifted completely, there is agreement that some of these innovations are here to stay. And this should serve to expand the capability of the LLE to conduct experiments with its international collaborators with the precision and efficiency that the science requires.

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