The first creation of a Bose-Einstein condensate in space is reported this week in Nature. Insights gained from the experiments performed with the condensate could support the development of space-based gravitational-wave detectors.
A Bose-Einstein condensate is a state of matter that forms when a low-density gas of atoms is cooled to temperatures close to absolute zero and collapses into a very dense, quantum state. The properties of such states make them ideal for sensing very small inertial forces, and they can be used to measure accelerations from gravity - and keeping the atoms in free-fall increases the sensitivity of these measurements. Studies of quantum systems such as Bose-Einstein condensates can help to increase our understanding of gravitational waves, general relativity and quantum mechanics.
Maike Lachmann, Ernst Rasel, and colleagues have created the first space-based Bose-Einstein condensate, in free-fall, on board the sounding rocket mission MAIUS-1 (Matter-Wave Interferometry in Microgravity). The performance of the condensate compares well to ground-based creations, producing around 105 atoms in 1.6 seconds, and the authors were able to perform more than 80 experiments during the six-minute space flight. The insights from these experiments help to increase our understanding of conducting cold-atom experiments in space, and could lead to a new era for quantum gas experiments.