Ultracold atoms produced by NASA aboard the ISS could reveal secrets of solar system

The International Space Station (ISS) has served as a platform for another major breakthrough in outer space experiments- the creation of ultracold bubbles. Using the Cold Atom Lab, the first-ever quantum physics facility aboard the ISS, scientists have successfully cooled gaseous atoms to nearly absolute zero (minus 273 degrees Celsius), which is the lowest temperature matter can reach. To be precise, the atoms were cooled to within a millionth of a degree above absolute zero and shaped into extremely thin, hollow spheres, said a statement by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

This achievement is deemed significant as it is only possible in the microgravity environment because on Earth, the atoms pool downward, forming something closer in shape to a contact lens than a bubble.

According to NASA, these bubbles, which are made from exotic gaseous atoms, could be used in new kinds of experiments with an even more exotic material- the fifth state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). The BEC was a concept about a new state of matter that was proposed by Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose with some contributions from Albert Einstein. This first state of matter is said to be distinct from the other four- solids, liquids, gases and plasmas.

“In a BEC, scientists can observe the quantum properties of atoms at a scale visible to the naked eye. For instance, atoms and particles sometimes behave like solid objects and sometimes behave like waves – a quantum property called “wave-particle duality”, NASA said.

How were the ultracold bubbles created?

In its report, the JPL explained that the creation of these bubbles needed no astronaut assistance as the Cold Atom Lab, which is the size of a minifridge, was operated remotely from Earth. The Cold Atom Lab is basically a vacuum-sealed chamber where the bubbles were created using magnetic fields. These magnetic fields allowed the scientists to manipulate the gas into different shapes. The agency explained that the cold gas started out in a small, round blob, like an egg yolk, and then was sculpted into a structure like a thin eggshell.

Moreover, the largest are about 1 millimeter in diameter and just 0.00004 inches thick. What’s more, is that they are composed of just a few thousands of atoms as opposed to one cubic millimeter of air on Earth that contains somewhere around a billion trillion molecules. The findings have been published in the journal Nature.

How is the milestone helpful?

Apart from learning about the motion and behavior of fluids in the absence of gravity and gaining insights into the fifth state of matter, NASA said that such experiments would help in another crucial aspect. It said that quantum investigations conducted in outer space would allow improvements in spacecraft navigation systems and sensors enabling us to better understand Earth and other solar system bodies. Notably, it is the field of quantum science that has led to the development of modern technologies such as transistors and lasers.

Nathan Lundblad, a physics professor at Bates College said, “Some theoretical work suggests that if we work with one of these bubbles that is in the BEC state, we might be able to form vortices – basically, little whirlpools – in the quantum material” .

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