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Because it’s almost impossible to get it to stay still on Earth.
- Scientists have made a rubidium Bose-Einstein condensate aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
- Bose-Einstein condensate is the fifth state of matter, and it lives way longer in space.
- NASA’s autonomous Cold Atom Lab was carried up to ISS in 2018.
NASA scientists on Earth have collaborated with astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) to corral the first ever Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) outside of Earth’s gravity. Among other things, the BEC lasted hundreds of times longer than the same substance on Earth’s surface.
To make a BEC, scientists must first corral and then supercool atoms. In the near-zero gravity in space, they can mix the ingredients in a much smaller catchment “trap.” On Earth’s surface, the atoms begin to repel each other and fly apart almost instantaneously. In space, they lasted a cool entire second-plus under observation.
And even after that, the way the atoms react to each other in space is interesting in itself. Without gravity, the atoms float like anything else. Now scientists can study them for the first time in microgravity.
Previously, scientists were able to study tiny lengths of microgravity-like conditions by dropping experiments in freefall and other common workarounds. In pre- and post-COVID-19 times, you could also book a flight on a zero-gravity airplane, where pilots carefully perform parabola-shaped flights that induce up to 30 seconds of “true weightlessness.” That sounds amazing, but it’s easy to see how true true weightlessness aboard the ISS makes for better, less stressful scientific experiments.
“Planetary orbit, specifically the condition of perpetual free-fall, offers to lift cold-atom studies beyond such terrestrial limitations,” the scientists explain in their paper, published in Nature. “Here we report production of rubidium Bose–Einstein condensates (BECs) in an Earth-orbiting research laboratory, the Cold Atom Lab.”
The Cold Atom Lab (CAL) is a newcomer to ISS, arriving in 2018 after a long and careful design process that began in 2011. NASA’s CAL site reiterates:
“On Earth, freely evolving BEC’s are dragged down by the pull of gravity, and can typically only be observed for a fraction of a second. But in the microgravity environment of the space station, each freely evolving BEC can be observed for up to 10 seconds, which is longer than what’s possible with any other existing BEC experiment.”
All the experiments are controlled remotely, so astronauts don’t have to do anything but leave CAL alone.
The CAL highlights the second major appeal of space, where not just the gravity is near zero. NASA bills CAL as “the coolest spot in the universe,” piggybacking cutting-age cooling technology from Earth’s surface with the naturally ice cold temperature in deep space. As atoms approach absolute zero, they slow and become more and more pliable, forming BECs more readily. In this case, researchers are using laboratory-favorite rubidium, one of just a handful of elements known to form BECs.This content is imported from YouTube. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.
In a sense, this BEC demonstration was proof of concept. The researchers explain:
“We observe subnanokelvin BECs in weak trapping potentials with free-expansion times extending beyond one second, providing an initial demonstration of the advantages offered by a microgravity environment for cold-atom experiments and verifying the successful operation of this facility.”
With available time of up to 6.5 hours per day, scientists from all over NASA and beyond will be able to make an appointment for the quantum atomic deep freeze.
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