Could experiments in space hold answers for quantum mechanics?

4 Aug 2021

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Experts from Queen’s University Belfast are urging for a $1bn investment to pursue space as the next quantum frontier.

Science in the 20th century uncovered mysteries concerning both the very big and the very small. Space exploration brought humanity to the moon and created satellites whirring around our Earth. Elsewhere, scientists discovered the bizarre world of quantum mechanics where microscopic reality operated under new and often unexpected rules.

Now, a group of scientists has published an article in Nature calling for $1bn investment to merge these two worlds and begin quantum experiments in space.

The article was written by an international group of researchers who highlighted the need for a global effort to understand quantum mechanics. Among their central questions is when does the shift from quantum reality to classical reality take place?

In particular, physicists have been testing whether molecules of ever-larger sizes behave like waves, but there are limits to what can be done in a lab.

“Meeting the right experimental conditions such as low pressure and temperature, or isolation from external noise, all the way down to be able to test the very fundamental principles underpinning nature – the holy grail of every quantum physicist – is very demanding,” explained Dr Matteo Carlesso, a research fellow at Queen’s University Belfast and one of the authors of the article.

“Carrying out the experiments in space would offer an efficient and exciting way forward. On board a satellite – free-fall, high vacuum and no ground-related vibrations – would make quantum experiments more robust. This would allow for the test of those tiny, elusive effects that are so difficult to unveil on ground.”

Currently, oligoporphyrin is the smallest known molecule that displays quantum behaviours. Made up of 2,000 atoms, it is thousands of times smaller than a speck of dust. The researchers highlighted that finding larger objects displaying quantum behaviours would have “tantalising” implications.

‘This would mean that scientists, quantum industry and policymakers would work together towards the exploration of a new space frontier. This time, a quantum one!’

The article clearly lays out what needs to happen for quantum experiments in space. This includes addressing cooling, choosing appropriate detectors and selecting the right particles for testing.

The authors acknowledge that critics would contend it is an inappropriate investment of funds amid the climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, but argue that the payoff in terms of knowledge and technology could be vast in a short period of time.

They also insist that the scale of funding needed will require international efforts in order to establish the optimum pace for these pursuits. They cite Europe as a leading player in the field, but call for other countries such as the US, Canada, Singapore and Japan to get involved.

Prof Mauro Paternostro, head of the School of Mathematics and Physics at Queen’s and another author on the paper, concluded: “We have identified the challenges ahead and are now making the case for an international effort.

“This would mean that scientists, quantum industry and policymakers would work together towards the exploration of a new space frontier. This time, a quantum one!”

Sam Cox was a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news