The recent combination of ultra-intense lasers and laser-accelerated electron beams is enabling the development of a new generation of compact x-ray light sources, the coherence of which depends directly on electron beam emittance. Although the emittance of accelerated electron beams can be low, it can grow due to the effects of space charge during free-space propagation. Direct experimental measurement of this important property is complicated by micron-scale beam sizes, and the presence of intense fields at the location where space charge acts. Reported here is a novel, non-destructive, single-shot method that overcame this problem. It employed an intense laser probe pulse, and spectroscopic imaging of the inverse-Compton scattered x-rays, allowing measurement of an ultra-low value for the normalized transverse emittance, 0.15 (±0.06) πmm mrad, as well as study of its subsequent growth upon exiting the accelerator. The technique and results are critical for designing multi-stage laser-wakefield accelerators, and generating high-brightness, spatially coherent x-rays.
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