Laser-shock compression experiments at 3rd and 4th generation light sources generally employ phase plates, which are inserted into the beamline to achieve a repeatable intensity distribution at the focal plane. Here, the laser intensity profile is characterized by a high-contrast, high-frequency laser speckle. Without sufficient smoothing, these laser non-uniformities can translate to a significant pressure distribution within the sample layer and can affect data interpretation in x-ray diffraction experiments. Here, we use a combination of one- and two-dimensional velocity interferometry to directly measure the extent to which spatial frequencies within the laser focal spot intensity pattern are smoothed out during propagation within the laser plasma and a polyimide ablator. We find that the use of thicker polyimide layers results in spatially smoother shock fronts, with the greatest degree of smoothing associated with the highest spatial frequencies. Focal spots with the smallest initial speckle separation produce the most rapid smoothing. Laser systems that employ smoothing by spectral dispersion techniques to rapidly modulate the focal plane intensity distribution are shown to be the most effective ones in producing a spatially smooth shock front. We show that a simple transport model combined with the known polyimide Hugoniot adequately describes the extent of shock smoothness as a function of polyimide thickness. Our results provide a description of spatial structure smoothing across a shock front, which can be used to design targets on x-ray free electron laser facilities.

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