Ultracold bubbles on space station open new avenues of quantum research
Inside NASA’s Cold Atom Lab, scientists form bubbles from ultracold gas, shown in pink in this illustration. Lasers, also depicted, are used to cool the atoms, while an atom chip, illustrated in gray, generates magnetic fields to manipulate their shape, in combination with radio waves. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

New opportunities to experiment with an exotic state of matter are provided by ultracold bubbles.

Since the days of NASA's Apollo program, astronauts have documented (and contended with) how liquids behave differently in microgravity than they do on Earth. The lowest temperature matter can be reached with gas cooled to nearly absolute zero.

The first-ever quantum physics facility aboard the International Space Station was used by researchers to create extremely thin, hollow spheres from samples of atoms cooled to a millionth of a degree above absolute zero. The cold gas starts out in a small, round blob and is sculpted into a thin eggshell. The atoms pool downward, forming something closer in shape to a contact lens than a bubble.

The milestone is only possible in the microgravity environment on the space station, according to a new paper published in the journal Nature.

The Bose-Einstein condensate is a fifth state of matter and could eventually be used in new kinds of experiments. Scientists can see 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 like waves.

The work does not require assistance from astronauts. Cold Atom Lab uses magnetic fields to gently manipulate the gas into different shapes. The lab is remotely operated from JPL.

One-thousandth of a millimeter, or 0.00004 inches, is the diameter and thickness of the largest bubbles. Only a few thousand atoms comprise them. The air on Earth has around a billion trillion molecules.

Ultracold clouds of atoms are manipulated into hollow spheres inside NASA’s Cold Atom Lab aboard the International Space Station. In this series of images, clouds are seen at different stages of inflation, capturing how a single cloud of atoms looks as it is manipulated into a bubble. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

David Aveline, lead author on the new work and a member of the Cold Atom Lab science team at NASA, said that these are not like your average soap bubbles. We study how this unique gas behaves when shaped into different shapes. Very interesting physics can emerge when a material is manipulated in this way.

Why it matters.

Understanding the different physical conditions of materials is important. It is the first step to finding practical applications for those materials.

Scientists can remove the effects of gravity by conducting these types of experiments on the space station. Scientists can better understand the other factors at play by doing so.

The next step is to transition the ultracold gas to the BEC state and see how it behaves.

Nathan Lundblad said that some theoretical work suggests that if we work with one of the bubbles that is in the BEC state, we might be able to form whirlpools.

The field of quantum science has led to the development of transistors and lasers. Improvements in navigation systems and sensors for studying Earth and other solar system bodies could be made because of quantum investigations done in Earth. In space, researchers can study ultracold atoms and BECs in new ways because of the reduced effects of gravity. Researchers can observe phenomena longer than they can on Earth, thanks to this.

The primary goal of the Cold Atom Lab is to explore the quantum nature of matter in the space station.

More information: R. A. Carollo et al, Observation of ultracold atomic bubbles in orbital microgravity, Nature (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04639-8 Journal information: Nature Citation: Ultracold bubbles on space station open new avenues of quantum research (2022, May 18) retrieved 18 May 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-05-ultracold-space-station-avenues-quantum.html This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.