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Highly accurate measurements are possible utilizing atom interferometers that use the atom's wave character. As such, atom interferometers can be used to measure the Earth's gravitational field or spot gravitational waves.

First Atom Interferometry in Space

For the first time, scientists were able to perform atom interferometry onboard a sounding rocket.

"We have established the technological basis for atom interferometry on board of a sounding rocket and demonstrated that such experiments are not only possible on Earth, but also in space," said study author Professor Patrick Windpassinger of the Institute of Physics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU).

Windpassinger leads a group of German researchers in the study, "Ultracold atom interferometry in space," with findings published in Nature Communications.

First Bose-Einstein Condensate Generated in Space

Leibniz University Hannover collaborated with a group of researchers from different universities and research centers to launch the MAUS-1 mission in January 2017. This was the first rocket mission wherein a Bose-Einstein condensate was generated in space. This state of matter happens when atoms are cooled to minus 273 degrees Celsius or the temperature close to absolute zero.

Atom Interferometry's New Quantum Tricks
(Photo: NIST/Wikimedia Commons)
Atoms interfering with themselves. After ultracold atoms are maneuvered into superpositions--each one located in two places simultaneously--they are released to allow interference of each atom's two "selves." They are then illuminated with light, which casts a shadow, revealing a characteristic interference pattern, with red representing higher atom density. The variations in density are caused by the alternating constructive and destructive interference between the two "parts" of each atom, magnified by thousands of atoms acting in unison.

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The ultracold ensemble, the researchers said, showed a promising starting point for atom interferometry. Temperature is among the determining factors since measurements can be done more precisely and for longer periods at lower temperatures.

In the experiments, rubidium atom gas was broken up using laser light irradiation and then superpositioned. As forces act on the atoms on their different paths, various interference patterns can be made, and these can be used to gauge the forces that are influencing them, such as gravity.

The study first showed the coherence or interference capability of the Bose-Einstein condensate as an essentially needed property of the atomic ensemble. Here, the atoms in the interferometer were only partly superimposed as the light sequence was varied, leading to a spatial intensity modulation generation.

Further Atom Interferometry Experiments to Test Einstein's Equivalence Theory

Researchers thus showed the viability of the concept that could lead to groundbreaking experiments focused on the Earth's gravitational field, spotting gravitational waves, and challenging Einstein's equivalence principle, which is considered breakthroughs in physics.

The team plans to study further the feasibility of high-precision atom interferometry to challenge Einstein's theory of equivalence. Two more rocket launches slated for 2022 and 2023 will have the mission use potassium atoms and rubidium atoms to create interference patterns.

With the freefall acceleration of the two types of atoms compared, the challenge on the equivalence principle with a precision that has not been earlier achieved can be done.

The experiment is an example of continuing research work on quantum technologies, including developments in quantum communication, quantum sensors, and quantum computing.

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