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Propagation of ultrashort resonant ionizing laser pulses in rubidium vapor

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We investigate the propagation of ultrashort laser pulses in atomic rubidium vapor. The pulses are intensive enough to ionize the atoms and are directly resonant with the 780-nm ${D}_{2}$ line. We derive a relatively simple theory for computing the nonlinear optical response of atoms and investigate the competing effects of strong resonant nonlinearity and ionization in the medium using computer simulations. A nonlinear self-channeling of pulse energy is found to produce a continuous plasma channel with complete ionization. We evaluate the length, width, and homogeneity of the resulting plasma channel for various values of pulse energy and initial focusing to identify regimes optimal for applications in plasma-wave accelerator devices such as that being built by the AWAKE collaboration at CERN. Similarities and differences with laser pulse filamentation in atmospheric gases are discussed.