Quantum chemistry is having a moment in space aboard the ISS

16 Nov 2023

The Cold Atom Lab on the International Space Station. Image: JPL/NASA

In a study published in Nature yesterday, NASA scientists were able to produce a quantum state of matter in the Cold Atom Lab aboard the ISS.

Scientists have produced a quantum gas containing two types of atoms while aboard the International Space Station (ISS), the first time such a feat has been achieved in space.

In the NASA Cold Atom Lab facility aboard the ISS, researchers were able to produce Bose-Einstein condensates, a quantum state of matter made from an atomic gas cooled to temperatures close to absolute zero.

Named after Albert Einstein and Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose, the first atmoic Bose-Einstein condensate was created by Nobel laureates Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman (and separately by Nobel laureate Wolfgang Ketterle) and has had applications in atom lasers, atomic clocks and advanced sensors.

Nicholas Bigelow, a professor of physics and optics at the University of Rochester, says these quantum tools can be used to enhance the study of the essence of quantum matter, aid in the navigation between planets and help us understand fundamental laws of nature.

“There are a lot of things in fundamental physics where being in the presence of gravity actually limits how precise a measurement you can make,” said Bigelow, who is also director of the NASA-funded Consortium for Ultracold Atoms in Space.

“Removing gravity allows you to make a much longer observation time to get more precision in the measurement, and it allows you to see delicate effects that might be masked by gravity.”

Results of the achievement were published in Nature yesterday (15 November), marking a step towards bringing quantum tech to space, where the lack gravity makes precise testing possible. The hope is to use the NASA Cold Atom Lab to develop new space-based quantum technologies.

Some of these new technologies, according to Bigelow, will help us learn more about the nature of dark energy, the invisible component of our universe believed to be responsible for accelerating the expansion of the universe.

“We could make sensors that are extremely sensitive to small rotations and essentially use these cold atoms in the Bose-Einstein condensate to make gyroscopes,” Bigelow explained.

“These gyroscopes could give us a fixed reference point in space that could be used for deep space navigation. We’re also developing a number of things that could lead to better clocks in space, which are crucial to so many things in modern life such as high-speed internet and GPS.”

While the studies are being performed aboard the ISS, our only space station that has been continuously occupied by humans for 23 years, the orbital laboratory is set to be replaced by Starlab by the end of this decade, with help from Airbus and Voyager.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic