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The European XFEL laser measures more than a mile in length. (Credit: European XFEL)

The European XFEL, Europe's largest X-ray laser, begins operations on Friday. The laser's official unveiling will be streamed live online.

XFEL, located in Hamburg, Germany, is one of the most powerful video cameras in the world, capable of filming individual atoms and molecules, capturing their movements and reactions as they interact with other atoms and molecules.

The record-setting camera will allow scientists to explore the little-understood nooks and crannies of the nanoscale world in three dimensions -- phenomena too small and fast for lesser cameras to capture with the necessary clarity and precision.

Researchers will soon be able to study the exact molecular makeup of viruses and cells in 3D and film chemical reactions in real time.

The keys to the laser's incredible image-capturing abilities are its speed and size. XFEL can blast a flash of laser light once every ten femtoseconds -- roughly 27,000 flashes per second. The wavelengths of the laser light measure between 0.005 and 4.7 nanometers, allowing for extreme precision.

What's more, the laser is extremely bright. The laser's luminance is one billion times greater than a standard commercial laser.

In addition to imaging molecules, the laser will be able to create extreme temperatures and pressure, allowing scientists to test new material under unusual conditions or even recreate the circumstances of the early universe.

"It's such a different beast to anything else on the planet that it really feels like going into uncharted territory," Arwen Pearson, a biochemist at the Centre for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg, told Nature.

XFEL is massive. The laser particles accelerate down an underground tunnel stretching more than a mile long. The facility will be managed by DESY Hamburg and variety of international research organizations.

To start, XFEL will deliver laser light to two laboratories, but could eventually supply seven labs with powerful laser flashes.

The laser first flashed its light in May, but Friday marks the record-setting facility's inauguration, with actual science experimentation beginning in earnest.

XFEL will soon be delivering reams of data for scientists of all types to parse for revelations of all kinds.

"Having lots of data matters, and the European XFEL will deliver it in truckloads," said Abbas Ourmazd, a physicist at the University of Wisconsin.

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