Bose-Einstein condensates, a quantum gas made of two kinds of atoms, was created in the International Space Station’s (ISS) microgravity. The gas can be used to make super-sensitive sensors, and used for new experiments.

In the NASA Cold Atom Lab facility aboard the ISS, researchers were able to produce Bose-Einstein condensates, a quantum state of matter made from an atomic gas cooled to temperatures close to absolute zero, floating in zero-G. The Lab is operated remotely by a team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. The Cold Atom Lab (CAL) officially generated a quantum gas containing two kinds of atoms, potassium and rubidium. This could ultimately open the door for totally new space-based experiments in quantum chemistry.

When thinking about states of matter the four well known ones — solid, liquid, gas, and plasma — but there’s also an exotic fifth state of matter, the Bose-Einstein condensate, that was first discovered in the 1990s. Bose-Einstein condensates were first predicted by Einstein a hundred years ago. Other exotic states are cosmic Dark Matter, time-crystals, and superconductivity. A Bose-Einstein condensate is a state of matter that occurs at extremely low temperatures, where bosons (such as photons), and sometimes whole atoms, become indistinguishable and behave as a single quantum entity, forming a superfluid or superconducting state.

This illustration shows six tuned lasers used inside NASA’s Cold Atom Lab to slow down atoms, lowering their temperature.
A visual explanation of what Bose-Einstein Condensates are and how they work, produced by

After flying to space, the first step is to cool atoms close to absolute zero, or -459 degrees Fahrenheit (-273 degrees Celsius). That’s the coldest temperature possible in the universe. In this state, atoms slow down, their boundaries blend together, and scientists can observe quantum effects. The cooling is achieved by firing lasers at a cloud of atoms. This technique is not too different than the one used to achieve ignition of fusion – but in this case fine-tuned to cool, not heat.

Astronaut Christina Koch installs upgraded hardware including mixed-reality vision to the CAL

Scientists created Bose-Einstein condensates in the CAL for the first time in 2018, the year the chamber was installed on the ISS. They were rubidium Bose–Einstein condensates (BECs). The new experiment uses two different elements, a potassium-rubidium mix. This is the first dual-atom quantum gas produced in space. It’s also the longest lasting BEC in space.

model of a BEC

“We could make sensors that are extremely sensitive to small rotations and essentially use these cold atoms in the Bose-Einstein condensate to make gyroscopes,” said Nicholas Bigelow, a professor of physics and optics at the University of Rochester, and an author of the paper in Nature. “We’re also developing a number of things that could lead to better clocks in space, which are crucial to so many things in modern life such as high-speed internet and GPS.” It’s possible sensitive sensor could detect the influence of mysterious dark energy (that’s causing the universe to expand rapidly) from near Earth.

You can read more about it on the Rochester University web site.

The blue dots are spinning BEC clouds, behaving more like waves than atoms

David Raiklen
David Raiklen

David Raiklen wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. Among his teachers are John Williams and Mel Powel.
He has worked for Fox, Disney and Sprint. David has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 American Music Center Award. Dr. Raiklen has composed music and sound design for theater (Death and the Maiden), dance (Russian Ballet), television (Sing Me a Story), cell phone (Spacey Movie), museums (Museum of Tolerance), concert (Violin Sonata ), and film (Appalachian Trail).
His compositions have been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and the first Disney Hall. David Raiken is also host of a successful radio program, Classical Fan Club.