Experts at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have managed to create a rare quantum state of matter that’s known as a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) in space for the very first time.
A new paper that’s been just published on Nature explains that the experts were able to do this by placing a compact experimental setup that has the size of a mini-fridge on board of the ISS.
Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL)
This is called the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) aka the “coolest spot in the Universe.”
ArsTechnica notes that BECs are named like this to honor of Albert Einstein and Indian physicist Satyendra Bose, “who predicted the possibility in the 1920s that the wavelike nature of atoms might allow the atoms to spread out and overlap if they are packed closely enough together,” according to the online publication mentioned above.
Also, it’s important to note that at normal temperatures, atoms act like billiard balls, bouncing off one another.
If you lower the temperature, this will also end up in reducing their speed.
If the temperature gets low enough (which means that it’s billionths of a degree above absolute zero) and the atoms are densely packed enough, the different matter waves will also have the ability to “sense” one another and coordinate themselves as if they were simply one big “superatom.”
Neel Patel’s explanations
Another important thing worth mentioning is the fact that the BECs that are created in space are lasing longer compared to terrestrial labs.
The online publication mentioned above quotes Neel Patel’s explanations at Technology Review:
“To run experiments using a BEC, you need to turn down or release the magnetic trap. The cloud of crowded atoms will expand, which is useful because BECs need to stay cold, and gases tend to cool off as they expand. But if the atoms in a BEC get too far apart, they no longer behave like a condensate,” he said.
He continued and explained that “This is where the microgravity of low Earth orbit comes into play. If you try to increase the volume on Earth, gravity will just pull the atoms in the center of the BEC cloud down to the bottom of the trap until they spill out, distorting the condensate or ruining it entirely.”