By Amira Val Baker
The infamous exotic state of matter – Bose Einstein Condensates – that allows scientists to observe the quantum world has now just been created in space!
In the normal world atoms are separate systems with clearly defined boundaries, however at temperatures nearing absolute zero all those boundary conditions come down and the individual atomic systems coalesce into one. This exotic state of matter is known as a Bose Einstein Condensate (BEC) and was named after physicists Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein whose work on groups of photons and bosonic atoms led to its prediction in 1924.
BECs are extremely interesting, as now you have an agglomeration of atoms coalesced into one entity such that it can be described by a wave function that is normally reserved for the quantum world.
The first realization of this exotic matter came in 1995 by Eric Cornell and Carl Wiemann when a gas of rubidium was cooled to nearly absolute zero. These condensates can now be formed from millions of atoms. However, the size and time-scale of the condensate depends on the abilities of the lasers and magnets to trap and cool the atoms and maintain confinement.
Now in the microgravity of the International Space Station (ISS) a NASA team of scientist have managed to cool a cloud of rubidium atoms and produce for the first time this exotic state of matter in space. The difference here is the device – known as the Cold Atom Lab (CAL) – is only the size of a small refrigerator compared to the typical room size. As well and most significantly is the fact that in space, in microgravity conditions, the BEC does not need to be trapped and once created can be let go and the scientist are free to observe for longer – typically 5 – 10 seconds.
This has huge implications for studying BECs and advancing our understanding of superfluidity and other so-called strange quantum effects.
NASA Created a Rare, Exotic State of Matter in Space
By Rafi Letzter
NASA has cooled a cloud of rubidium atoms to ten-millionth of a degree above absolute zero, producing the fifth, exotic state of matter in space. The experiment also now holds the record for the coldest object we know of in space, though it isn’t yet the coldest thing humanity has ever created. (That record still belongs to a laboratory at MIT.)
The Cold Atom Lab (CAL) is a compact quantum physics machine, a device built to work in the confines of the International Space Station (ISS) that launched into space in May. Now, according to a statement from NASA, the device has produced its first Bose-Einstein condensates, the strange conglomerations of atoms that scientists use to see quantum effects play out at large scales.
“Typically, BEC experiments involve enough equipment to fill a room and require near-constant monitoring by scientists, whereas CAL is about the size of a small refrigerator and can be operated remotely from Earth,” Robert Shotwell, who leads the experiment from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in the statement.
Despite that difficulty, NASA said, the project was worth the effort. A Bose-Einstein condensate on Earth is already a fascinating object; at super-low temperatures, atoms’ boundaries blend together, and usually-invisible quantum effects play out in ways scientists can directly observe. But cooling clouds of atoms to ultra-low temperatures requires suspending them using magnets or lasers. And once those magnets or lasers are shut off for observations, the condensates fall to the floor of the experiment and dissipate.
In the microgravity of the ISS, however, things work a bit differently. The CAL can form a Bose-Einstein condensate, set it free, then have a significantly longer time to observe it before it drifts off, NASA wrote — as long as 5 or 10 seconds. And that advantage, as Live Science previously reported, should eventually allow NASA to create condensates far colder than any on Earth. As the condensates expand outside their container, they cool further. And the longer they have to cool, the colder they get.