International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

What is the Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC)?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : BECs

Mains level : Various properties of BECs

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.

Try this question from CSP 2018

Q. Consider the following phenomena:

  1. Light is affected by gravity.
  2. The Universe is constantly expanding.
  3. Matter warps its surrounding space-time.

Which of the above is/are the prediction/predictions of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, often discussed in media?

(a) 1 and 2 only

(b) 3 only

(c) 1 and 3 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3

Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs)

  • Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) — the existence of which was predicted by Albert Einstein and Indian mathematician Satyendra Nath Bose almost a century ago — are formed when atoms of certain elements are cooled to near absolute zero (0 Kelvin, minus 273.15 Celsius).
  • 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.

Why are BECs important?

  • Scientists believe BECs 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. 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.

Studying BECs

  • NASA scientists unveiled the first results from BEC experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS), where particles can be manipulated free from Earthly constraints.
  • The microgravity onboard the ISS allowed them to create BECs from rubidium — a soft metal similar to potassium — on a far shallower trap than on Earth.
  • Microgravity at ISS allows confining atoms with much weaker forces. Microgravity also allowed the atoms to be manipulated by weaker magnetic fields, speeding their cooling and allowing clearer imaging.
  • Creating the fifth state of matter, especially within the physical confines of a space station, is no mean feat for NASA.
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