Aboard the International Space Station is a small laboratory the size of a small refrigerator that makes some of the coldest things in the universe. It’s called the Cold Atom Laboratory, and for some time, scientists have been using this chamber to investigate the strange quantum properties of atoms in microgravity. But on Wednesday (November 15), they announced they had reached a milestone.
Operated remotely by a team from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, the Cold Atom Laboratory has officially produced a quantum gas containing two types of atoms. This could ultimately open the door to entirely new space experiments in quantum chemistry.
Matter can exist in five known states. Gases, liquids, solids and plasma are the well-known ones, but there is also a strange fifth state of matter, which is… Bose-Einstein condenserwhich was first discovered in the 1990s.
This state of matter is not found in nature, but scientists are able to create it. Bose-Einstein condensates are generated in cryogenic laboratories such as the Cold Atom Laboratory, where a laser or magnet helps cool a cloud of atoms to near absolute zero, or -459 degrees Fahrenheit (-273 degrees Celsius). This is the coldest possible temperature in the universe. In this case, the atoms slow down, their edges blend together, and scientists can observe quantum effects that would normally be very difficult to investigate.
Related: Antimatter responds to gravity as Einstein predicted, and this is confirmed by the major CERN experiment
On Earth, gravity causes Bose-Einstein condensates to dissipate as soon as the magnets or ultracold lasers in the experiment chamber are turned off. But this would not happen in the microgravity environment of space. Like this, scholars Bose-Einstein condensates were created In the cold atom laboratory for the first time in 2018, the year the chamber was installed on the International Space Station. And in years agoThey have studied this phenomenon with great influence.
But now, researchers have shown that they can create such a quantum gas not just with one type of atom, but with two types of atoms. In this case, they achieved the feat using a cloud of potassium and rubidium. According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory advertisementFuture work with this type of quantum gas could be used to help advance space-based quantum technologies that already exist on Earth.
“We can make sensors that are very sensitive to small rotations and essentially use these cold atoms in Bose-Einstein condensates to make gyroscopes,” Nicholas Bigelow, a professor of physics and optics at the University of Rochester, said in an article. statement. He is a co-author of the new findings.
“These gyroscopes could give us a fixed reference point in space that can be used for deep space navigation,” Bigelow said. “We’re also developing a number of things that could lead to better clocks in space, which are essential to many things in modern life like high-speed internet and GPS.”
The researchers also believe that future experiments in a cold atom laboratory could help them test the principle of equivalence, a fundamental principle in Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. This principle states that gravity should affect all objects in the same way regardless of their mass. In other words, the feather and the brick should fall at the same rate, at least in a vacuum, where there is no friction.
Scientists have had difficulty resolving this principle with laws Quantum mechanicsWhich describes how the smallest known objects in the universe behave. They may be able to test it more precisely in quantum experiments in space.
A paper detailing these findings was published November 15 in the journal Nature.
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