The ability to observe ultrafast structural changes in nanoscopic samples is essential for understanding non-equilibrium phenomena such as chemical reactions, matter under extreme conditions, ultrafast phase transitions and intense light-matter interactions. Established imaging techniques are limited either in time or spatial resolution and typically require samples to be deposited on a substrate, which interferes with the dynamics. Here, we show that coherent X-ray diffraction images from isolated single samples can be used to visualize femtosecond electron density dynamics. We recorded X-ray snapshot images from a nanoplasma expansion, a prototypical non-equilibrium phenomenon. Single Xe clusters are superheated using an intense optical laser pulse and the structural evolution of the sample is imaged with a single X-ray pulse. We resolved ultrafast surface softening on the nanometre scale at the plasma/vacuum interface within 100 fs of the heating pulse. Our study is the first time-resolved visualization of irreversible femtosecond processes in free, individual nanometre-sized samples.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Electronic, Optical and Magnetic Materials
- Atomic and Molecular Physics, and Optics