NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory paves the way for quantum chemistry in space

NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory paves the way for quantum chemistry in space

These types of molecules probably don’t exist in nature, but they could be used to make sensitive detectors that could detect subtle changes in magnetic field strength, for example, or other disturbances that cause them to break apart or collapse.

“What we do with cold atom science in general is look for and learn about new tools that nature provides us,” said Jason Williams of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, a Cold Atom Laboratory project scientist and co-author. On the new study. “It’s as if we discovered a hammer and just started investigating all the ways we could use it.”

Modern puzzle

One possible way to use a quantum gas with two types of atoms is to test the so-called equivalence principle, which states that gravity affects all objects in the same way regardless of their mass. It is a principle that many physics teachers will demonstrate by placing a feather and a hammer in a closed vacuum chamber and showing that in the absence of air friction, the two fall at the same rate. In 1971, Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott performed this experiment on the moon’s surface without the need for a vacuum chamber.

Using an instrument called an atomic interferometer, scientists have already conducted experiments on Earth to see if the equivalence principle holds true at atomic scales. Using a quantum gas containing two types of atoms and an interferometer in the space station’s microgravity, they were able to test the principle with greater precision than is possible on Earth. In doing so, they may learn whether there is a point where gravity no longer treats all matter equally, suggesting that Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity contains a small error that could have big implications.

The equivalence principle is part of the general theory of relativity, the backbone of modern gravitational physics, which describes how large objects, such as planets and galaxies, behave. But the main mystery of modern physics is why the laws of gravity do not agree with the laws of quantum physics, which describe the behaviors of small objects, such as atoms. The laws of both fields have repeatedly proven true in their respective scale realms, but physicists have been unable to unify them into a single description of the universe as a whole.

Searching for features of gravity that are not explained by Einstein’s theory is one way to search for a means of unification.

Better sensors

Scientists already have ideas to go beyond testing fundamental physics in microgravity inside a cold atom laboratory. They have also proposed space experiments that could use diatomic interferometers and quantum gases to measure gravity with high precision in order to learn about the nature of dark energy, the mysterious engine behind the accelerating expansion of the universe. What they learned could lead to the development of precise sensors for a wide range of applications.

The quality of these sensors will depend on how well scientists understand the behavior of these atoms in microgravity, including how these atoms interact with each other. Introducing controls into atoms, such as magnetic fields, can make them repel each other like oil and water or stick together like honey. Understanding these interactions is a major goal of the Cold Atom Lab.

More about the mission

A division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena designed and built the Cold Atom Lab, which is sponsored by the Biological and Physical Sciences Division (BPS) in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. BPS pioneers scientific discovery and enables exploration using space environments for investigations not possible on Earth. Studying biological and physical phenomena under extreme conditions allows researchers to develop the fundamental scientific knowledge required to go farther and stay longer in space, while also benefiting life on Earth.

To learn more about Cold Atom Lab, go here:

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