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Scientists observe Bose-Einstein Quantum “Fifth State of Matter” for the first time in space

Bose-Einstein condensates (BEC) are formed when the atoms of certain elements are cooled to near absolute zero (0 Kelvin, minus 273.15 celsius). At this point, atoms become a single entity with quantum property, whereas each particle also functions as a wave of matter.

Jun 17, 2020 11:42 IST
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The fifth state of matter has been observed by the scientists for the first time in space. This observation has offered unprecedented insight that can help in solving some of the quantum universe’s most difficult questions.

A team of NASA Scientists on June 11 unveiled the first results from Bose-Einstein condensates (BEC) experiments aboard the International Space Station, where particles are free from manipulation from any of the Earthly constraints.

The existence of Bose-Einstein condensates (BEC) was predicted by an Indian mathematician Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein almost a century ago.

Bose-Einstein Condensates:

Bose-Einstein condensates (BEC) are formed when the atoms of certain elements are cooled to near absolute zero (0 Kelvin, minus 273.15 celsius). At this point, atoms become a single entity with quantum property, whereas each particle also functions as a wave of matter.

BECs straddle the line between the macroscopic world that is governed by forces such as gravity and the microscopic place, ruled by quantum mechanics. Scientists have believed that BECs contain vital clues to mysterious phenomena such as dark energy which is unknown energy thought to be behind the Universe’s accelerating expansion.

But BECs are extremely fragile and the slightest interaction with the external world is enough to warm them past their condensation threshold. Because of this condition, it becomes nearly impossible for scientists to study BECs on Earth as gravity interferes with the magnetic field required to hold them in place for observation.

The execution of BECs experiment:

As the scientists unveiled the first results from BEC experiment aboard International Space Station, where particles can be manipulated free from Earthly constraints, Robert Thompson from California Institute for Technology, Pasadena informs that microgravity allows confining atoms with much weaker forces, since we don’t have to force them against gravity.

The research that has been published in the Journal Nature presents several startling differences in the properties of BECs created on Earth and those created on aboard the ISS.

BECs in terrestrial lab generally last a handful of milliseconds before dissipating while aboard ISS, the BECs lasted more than a second which offered a team an unprecedented chance to study their properties.

Microgravity had also allowed the atoms to be manipulated by weaker magnetic fields, allowing clearer imaging and speeding their cooling.

A breakthrough of ‘Fifth State of Matter’:

Creating a fifth state of matter within the physical confines of a space station is no easy task. First bosons, the atoms that have an equal number of protons and electrons, are cooled to absolute zero with the use of lasers to clamp them in space. The more slower the atoms move around, the more cooler they become.

As the atoms lose heat, the magnetic field is introduced to keep them from moving and each particle’s waves expand. Cramming plenty of bosons into a microscopic ‘trap’ causes their waves to overlap into a single matter-wave, this property is known as quantum degeneracy.

The magnetic trap is released for the scientists to study the condensate. However, the atoms begin to repel each other which causes the cloud to fly apart and BEC becomes dilute to detect.

Thomson and the team had realized that the microgravity aboard ISS has allowed them to create BECs from rubidium on a far shallower trap than on Earth. This gave the vastly increased time to study the condensate before diffusing.

Thompson stated that what’s important is that we can observe the atoms as they float entirely unconfined by external forces.

Previous studies that had tried to emulate the effect of weightlessness on BECs had used rockets, aeroplanes in free fall, and even apparatus dropped from various heights.

David Aveline, research team leader stated that studying BECs in microgravity has opened up a host of opportunities. Applications range from gravitational waves to spacecraft navigation and searches for dark energy and tests of general relativity and prospecting for subsurface minerals on the moon and other planetary bodies.

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