Physicists have made a Bose-Einstein condensate on the International Space Station – allowing them to probe the mysteries of quantum physics in detail. Physicists have made a Bose-Einstein condensate on the International Space Station – allowing them to probe the mysteries of quantum physics in detail.
First created in 1995, Bose–Einstein condensates form when clouds of atoms are chilled to just above absolute zero. At this temperature, the particles’ wave-like quantum nature dominates, and they coalesce into a single macroscopic quantum object, which physicists can use to investigate exotic behaviour.
Already the most complex experiment ever on the ISS, the facility got a mind-bending upgrade in January. Over eight days, NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir installed an atom interferometer, a process Oudrhiri likens to performing heart surgery in space. The interferometer splits a cloud into two quantum states — with each atom effectively existing in two places at once — before reuniting them to produce an interference pattern. This pattern acts as a sensitive gauge of forces around the condensate, which physicists can use to test fundamental laws of nature or to search for dark energy. Tests in May — when the coronavirus lockdown meant that the remotely operated CAL was the United States’ only operational cold-atom lab — show that the atom interferometer is working as planned, says Oudrhiri.
The compact nature of CAL meant that compromises had to be made in its abilities, and it is not ideal for every experiment because it suits the needs of multiple projects, says Lannert. “But the trade-off is more than worth it,” she adds. It also allows physicists without their own extensive labs to perform these experiments. “We’re at a small liberal-arts college, and being able to take data on this machine is just super exciting.”