Physicists managed to maintain a Bose-Einstein condensate for more than a second on the International Space Station. This is why it is a scientific and technological achievement.

Photograph of the Cold Atom Laboratory when it was in design on Earth. // Source : NASA/JPL-Caltech/Tyler Winn

The International Space Station (ISS) is also and above all a valuable laboratory for scientific experiments that are difficult or impossible to carry out on Earth. As such, a valuable instrument was sent to the ISS in 2018: the Cold Atom Laboratory. This kind of extreme fridge allows atoms to be cooled to temperatures close to absolute zero. As reported in a research paper published on June 11, 2020 in the journal Nature, the instrument has made it possible to create, for the first time in space, and of a quality never equalled on Earth, a Bose-Einstein condensate. This is sometimes referred to as the “fifth state of matter” (the usual four states being solid, liquid, gas and plasma).

Albert Einstein

We must perceive this state of matter as a gaseous cloud of atoms. At this temperature, the atoms are at their lowest energy level, approaching but never reaching absolute zero, which has the effect of slowing them down. It is then that in the presence of a magnetic trap, they come closer, overlap, condense, to form one and the same quantum state. They are no longer individual atoms, but a collective of atoms. A “super atom”, comparable to a wave composed of wavelets. By releasing the magnetic trap, scientists can observe this state of matter for a short time.

This condensate was predicted decades ago by Albert Einstein, who then relied on the work of Satyendranath Bose. This state of matter was actually experimented within 1995 – leading to the Nobel Prize in Physics for the scientists who created it. When atoms become this condensate, they adopt quantum properties that are more easily observable. There are a few times when the quantum world is stable enough to be studied. Condensates are a form of intermediate medium between the macroscopic and microscopic worlds. It is therefore also a scientific portal to a better understanding of quantum mechanics.

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If we already know how to produce a Bose-Einstein condensate, you may be wondering, then why is this study on the International Space Station so exceptional, so important? On Earth, the fifth state of matter is extremely difficult to maintain. Its balance is fragile, any interaction with the macroscopic world can break it. But on Earth, there is one of the most important forces in the Universe: gravity!

The fifth state of matter created onboard the ISS

The ISS offers a microgravity environment. As a result, atoms are more easily maintained in this fifth state of matter. The experiment reported on June 11th in Nature allowed Bose-Einstein condensates to remain for more than a second, when, down here, they dissipate in a few milliseconds. However, the more condensate can be maintained, the more time scientists have to observe and the sharper the imaging capability.

The physicists who wrote the study write that this is “an initial demonstration of the benefits of a microgravity environment for atomic cooling experiments, and it confirms the operational success of this facility”. As they themselves point out, this is only a first step, but it is a genuinely scientific and technological achievement, paving the way for further important advances.

By succeeding in producing this state of matter for so long in space on the ISS, physicists are not only advancing their understanding of quantum mechanics, but they are also developing a valuable tool. “The applications range from experiments in general relativity and the search for dark energy and gravitational waves to the navigation of spacecraft and the search for minerals beneath the surface of the moon and other planetary bodies,” says one of the physicists working on the project.

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Credit: futura-sciences

Matthew Sykes
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