Scientists have observed the fifth state of matter in space for the first time, offering unprecedented insight that could help solve some of the quantum universe's most intractable conundrums, research showed on 11th June 2020 at the International Space Station (ISS).
There are four states of matter common in everyday life — gases, liquids, solids, and plasma. A lot of great research detailing has been done into these states. However, there is also the fifth state of matter — Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs), which scientists first created in the lab 25 years ago. BEC’s—the existence of which was predicted by Albert Einstein and Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose almost a century ago—are formed when atoms of certain elements are cooled to near absolute zero. 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 line between the macroscopic world governed by forces such as gravity and the microscopic plane, ruled by quantum mechanics. Scientists believe BEC’s contain vital clues to mysterious phenomena such as dark energy—the unknown energy thought to be behind the Universe's accelerating expansion. But BECs are extremely fragile and delicate. The slightest interaction with the external world is enough to warm them past their condensation threshold. This makes them nearly impossible for scientists to study on Earth, where gravity interferes with the magnetic fields required to hold them in place for observation. On Thursday a team of NASA scientists unveiled the first results from BEC experiments aboard the ISS, where particles can be manipulated free from Earthly constraints.
As such, researchers developed the Cold Atom Lab, which can generate Bose-Einstein condensates in the microgravity found in orbit aboard the space station. Launched in 2018, the Cold Atom Lab is small and requires only a relatively small amount of energy so it meets the specific constraints aboard the space station. BEC’s in earthly labs exist just a few milliseconds before getting dissipated. But, BEC observed abroad on the ISS, in the Cold Atom Lab lasted for more than a second, giving scientists ample time to study them precisely. Microgravity also allowed the atoms to be manipulated by weaker magnetic fields, speeding their cooling and allowing clearer imaging. This entire feat has been a remarkable breakthrough in physics.