Ultrashort pulsed lasers provide uniquely detailed access to the ultrafast dynamics of physical, chemical, and biological systems, but only a handful of wavelengths are directly produced by solid-state lasers, necessitating efficient high-power frequency conversion. Relativistic plasma mirrors generate broadband power-law spectra, that may span the gap between petawatt-class infrared laser facilities and x-ray free-electron lasers; despite substantial theoretical work the ultimate efficiency of this relativistic high-order-harmonic generation remains unclear. We show that the coherent radiation emitted by plasma mirrors follows a power-law distribution of energy over frequency with an exponent that, even in the ultrarelativistic limit, strongly depends on the ratio of laser intensity to plasma density and exceeds the frequently quoted value of −8/3 over a wide range of parameters. The coherent synchrotron emission model, when adequately corrected for the finite width of emitting electron bunches, is not just valid for p-polarized light and thin foil targets, but generally describes relativistic harmonic generation, including at normal incidence and with finite-gradient plasmas. Our numerical results support the ω−4/3 scaling of the synchrotron emission model as a limiting efficiency of the process under most conditions. The highest frequencies that can be generated with this scaling are usually restricted by the width of the emitting electron bunch rather than the Lorentz factor of the fastest electrons. The theoretical scaling relations developed here suggest, for example, that with a 20-PW 800-nm driving laser, 1 TW/harmonic can be produced for 1-keV photons.
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