The bubbles produced at NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory offer new opportunities to experiment with exotic states of matter. Since the days of NASA's Apollo program, astronauts have debated how liquids behave differently in microgravity than on Earth, forming floating spheres instead of heavy droplets from the bottom. Now, researchers have proven this effect with a much more exotic material: the gas was cooled to the lowest temperature that matter could reach—minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 273 degrees Celsius—near absolute zero. Quantum Exploration with Ultracold Bubbles on the Space Station offers physicists new results.
Let us now give the details of the research carried out. Using NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory, the first quantum physics facility on the Space Station, he took samples of atoms cooled to one millionth of absolute zero and spun them into extremely thin, hollow spheres.
The cold gas starts out as a small, round droplet, resembling an egg yolk, and chipped into something resembling a thin eggshell.
Similar attempts are unsuccessful in the world. Since the atoms will move downwards, they form something closer to a contact lens than a balloon in shape.
The feat, described in a new paper published online Wednesday, May 18 in the journal Nature, is only possible in the space station's microgravity environment.
Ultracold bubbles can finally be used in new types of experiments with an even more exotic material: a fifth state of matter different from gases, liquids, solids and plasmas (BEC). Bose-Einstein condensation we can say.
In a BEC, scientists can observe the quantum properties of atoms on a scale visible to the naked eye. For example, atoms and particles sometimes behave like solid objects and sometimes they behave like waves –"wave-particle dualityWe call it a quantum property called ”.
Astronaut assistance is not required for this mission. Ultracold bubbles are created inside Cold Atom Lab's tightly sealed vacuum chamber by gently manipulating the gas in different ways with magnetic fields.
And the lab, roughly the size of a mini fridge, is remotely controlled from JPL.
The largest bubbles are about one millimeter in diameter and one micron thick (thousandths of a millimeter or 0.00004 inch).
They are so thin and dilute that they consist of thousands of atoms.
One cubic millimeter of Earth's air contains about a billion trillion molecules.
"These are not your average soap bubbles," said David Aveline, lead author of the new paper and a member of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Cold Atom Laboratory science team in Southern California. “There is nothing in nature that gets colder than the atomic gases produced in the Cold Atom Lab.”
So we start with this one-of-a-kind gas and basically explore how it behaves when shaped in different geometries.
And historically, very interesting physics and new applications can arise when a material is manipulated in this way.”
Understanding materials requires exposing them to a variety of physical conditions. It is also the first step towards exploring practical applications for these materials.
Using the Cold Atom Laboratory on the space station, scientists can circumvent the effects of gravity, which is often the dominant force that affects the movement and behavior of liquids.
By doing this, scientists can better understand other factors at work, such as a liquid's surface tension or viscosity.
After creating the ultracold bubbles, scientists will switch the ultracold gas that formed the bubbles into the BEC state and observe how it behaves.
"Some theoretical work shows that if we work with one of these bubbles in the BEC state, we can create eddies - basically small eddies - in quantum material," said Nathan Lundblad, professor of Physics at Bates College.
"This is an example of physical configuration that can help us better understand BEC properties and gain more insight into the nature of quantum matter."
Quantum science has contributed to the development of modern technologies such as transistors and lasers.
Quantum probes in Earth orbit could lead to advances in spacecraft navigation systems and sensors for studying Earth and other solar system bodies.
Ultracold atomic facilities have been in operation on Earth for decades; However, as gravity decreases in space, researchers can study ultracold atoms and BECs in new ways. This allows researchers to regularly reach lower temperatures and observe phenomena for longer than they could on Earth.
“Our primary goal with Cold Atom Lab is fundamental research – we want to use the space station's unique space environment to explore the quantum nature of matter,” said Jason Williams, Cold Atom Lab project scientist at JPL. "Studying ultracold atoms in new geometries is an excellent example of this."