Newswise — Hopefully you've discovered this week how femtosecond science provides revolutionary views of some of nature’s fastest phenomena. You now know how mind-bogglingly fast a femtosecond passes, and you might be thinking things couldn't get much faster. Well, let’s talk about the attosecond.

One attosecond—a billionth of a billionth of a second, or a thousandth of a femtosecond—is just long enough for light to travel the width of a few hydrogen atoms, and scientists are only beginning to understand this largely unexplored time domain.

Some researchers believe that a few hundred attoseconds is the sweet spot for exploring the very heart of chemistry. Attosecond motions of electrons in atoms and molecules set the stage for what happens on slower timescales. While femtosecond snapshots reveal how individual atoms rapidly move around during chemical reactions, attoseconds would unearth what’s going on behind the scenes.

Building on the groundbreaking work used for femtosecond science, SLAC researchers and engineers are at the forefront of developing the tools to study these fundamental aspects of chemistry and develop the theoretical framework for attosecond science. They use high-power lasers to extract attosecond light pulses from atoms and work on techniques to turn femtosecond pulses from the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray laser into much shorter light flashes.

What will scientists uncover in the attosecond realm, and what will these ultrafast discoveries make possible in the fields of chemistry, materials science, biology and energy research? Stay tuned. In the field of ultrafast science, time flies.