"Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC)" by National Institute of Standards and Technology / Public Domain

Exotic fifth state of matter made on the International Space Station

Jun 11, 2020

By Jonathan O’Callaghan

A exotic fifth type of matter has been created in one of the coldest places in the universe – a device on board the International Space Station (ISS).

The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) was launched to the ISS in 2018 to investigate a strange kind of matter, known as a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). This suitcase-sized device chills atoms of rubidium and potassium in a vacuum chamber, using laser light to slow their movement. Magnetic fields then contain the resulting cloud of atoms, which is cooled to nearly absolute zero at -273°C, producing a BEC.

This chilly substance was initially theorised by Albert Einstein and Satyendra Nath Bose in the early 1920s as the fifth state of matter, following solids, liquids, gases and plasma. It is a supercooled gas that no longer behaves as individual atoms and particles, but rather an entity in a single quantum state.

“This is pretty remarkable because this gives you a macroscopic-sized quantum mechanical object,” says Maike Lachmann at Leibniz University Hannover in Germany.

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