For the first time, physicists created a ‘fifth’ state of matter in space
In January last year, a rocket carrying a tiny chip packed with rubidium-87 atoms was launched more than 200 kilometers (124 miles) above the planet’s surface. The mission was brief, affording just six minutes of microgravity at its height.
But in that time the tiny chip briefly held the record for being the coldest spot in space.
On top of that, German researchers still managed to cram in more than 100 experiments. Their results are set to impact how we will one day study big things in the Universe.
The Matter-Wave Interferometry in Microgravity (MAIUS 1) experiment launched from Kiruna in Sweden was the first of several missions aiming to study a special fifth state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) under microgravity conditions.
Collections of atoms usually jiggle with energy in such a way that we can theoretically see them as individuals weaving through a crowd.
Once that energy is taken away, they fall into a lull, for all purposes ending up with an identical set of characteristics, or quantum states. Rather than jump to their own beat, they become indistinguishable - a super particle with one identity.
Forcing particles to be quiet typically entails holding them in an electromagnetic trap while carefully tuned lasers strike them with perfect timing, a little like hitting a person on a swing in such a way they slow down rather than speed up.
Once the atoms are quiet, the trap can be turned off and the experiment can begin. Just be quick – you need to catch the atom cloud before it drops to the bottom of the container.
Without gravity ruining the party, researchers would have more time to conduct more complicated experiments.
Usually, BECs need a room of equipment to cool atoms. So researchers from a number of German institutions had to first work together to miniaturize the setup.
The end result was a small chip containing atoms of rubidium, which could be packed inside a sounding rocket – an unpiloted research vessel – and shot up to a height of 243 kilometers (150 miles).