The breakthrough is expected to help solve some of the quantum universe’s most stubborn conundrums. Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) – were first predicted by Professor Albert Einstein and Indian mathematician Satyendra Nath Bose almost a century ago.
The elusive matter formed when atoms of certain elements are cooled to near absolute zero (-273.15C).
Microgravity allows us to confine atoms with much weaker forces, since we don’t have to support them against gravity
Dr Robert Thompson
At this point, the atoms become a single entity with quantum properties, wherein each particle also functions as a wave of matter.
BECs straddle the bizarre hinterland between the macroscopic world governed by forces such as gravity and the strange microscopic plane, ruled by quantum mechanics.
Scientists believe BECs contain vital clues to mysterious phenomena such as dark energy, the elusive energy believed to be behind the universe’s ever-accelerating expansion.
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However, BECs are extremely fragile, with even the slightest interaction with the external world enough to warm them past their precarious condensation threshold.
This makes them nearly impossible for them to be studied on Earth, as gravity interferes with the magnetic fields required to hold them in place for observation.
However, particles can be manipulated free from Earthly constraints in space.
NASA scientists this week unveiled the first results from BEC experiments aboard the ISS.
Dr Robert Thompson from the California Institute for Technology, said: “Microgravity allows us to confine atoms with much weaker forces, since we don’t have to support them against gravity.”
The research reveals several startling discrepancies in the properties of BECs created on Earth and the sister ISS experiments.
BECs in earthly labs typically last a handful of milliseconds before dissipating, in contrast to the BECs aboard the ISS, which lasted more than a second.
This length of time offered ample opportunity to study their properties.
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Microgravity also allowed the atoms to be manipulated by weaker magnetic fields, speeding their cooling and allowing clearer imaging.
Creating the fifth state of matter is an incredibly complex process.
First, bosons – particles that have an equal number of protons and electrons – are cooled to near absolute zero using lasers to clamp them in place.
The slower the atoms move around, the cooler they become.
As they lose heat, a magnetic field is introduced to keep them from moving and each particle’s wave expands.
Cramming many bosons into a microscopic “trap” causes their waves to overlap into a single matter wave – a property known as quantum degeneracy.
The second the magnetic trap is released in order for scientists to study the condensate, however, the atoms begin to repel each other, causing the cloud to fly apart and the BEC to becomes too dilute to detect.
Dr Thompson’s team realised the microgravity on the ISS allowed them to create BECs from rubidium – a soft metal similar to potassium – on a far shallower trap than on Earth.
This accounted for the vastly increased time the condensate could be studied before diffusing.
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