Atomic interferometry demonstrated in space for the first time

Payload system of the sounding rocket in the integration hall of the Esrange Space Center of the European Space Agency in Sweden Credit: André Wenzlawski, JGU

Extremely accurate measurements are possible with atomic interferometers, which use the wave character of atoms for this purpose. They can thus be used, for example, to measure the gravitational field of the Earth or to detect gravitational waves. A team of scientists from Germany has now successfully performed nuclear interferometry in space for the first time – on a sounding rocket. “We established the technological basis for atomic interferometry on board a sounding rocket and demonstrated that such experiments are not only possible on Earth, but also in space,” said Professor Patrick Windpassinger of the Gotenberg University Institute of Physics Johannes Gutenberg ( JGU)), whose team was involved in the investigation. The results of their analyzes were published in Natural Communications.

A team of researchers from various universities and research centers led by Leibniz Hannover University launched the MAIUS-1 mission in January 2017. Since then it has become the first rocket mission on which Bose-Einstein condensate has been generated in space. This special state of matter occurs when atoms – in this case rubidium atoms – cool to a temperature close to absolute zero, or minus 273 degrees Celsius. “For us, this very cold set represented a very promising starting point for atomic interferometry,” Windpassinger explained. Temperature is one of the determining factors, as measurements can be made more accurately and over longer periods at lower temperatures.

Atomic interferometry: Generating atomic interference by spatial separation and subsequent superposition of atoms

During the experiments, the gas from rubidium atoms was separated by laser light radiation and then superimposed. Depending on the forces acting on the atoms on their different paths, several interfering patterns can be produced, which in turn can measure the forces that affect them, such as gravity.

Atomic interferometry demonstrated in space for the first time

Example of an interference pattern produced by the atomic interferometer Credit: ©: Maike Lachmann, IQO

Laying the groundwork for accurate measurements

The study first showed the coherence or interference capacity of the Bose-Einstein condensate as essentially a required property of the atomic assembly. To this end, the atoms in the interferometer were only partially superimposed by varying the light sequence, which, in the case of coherence, led to the generation of spatial intensity modulation. The research team thus demonstrated the viability of the concept, which can lead to further experiments aimed at the measurement of the Earth’s gravitational field, the detection of gravitational waves, and a test of Einstein’s equivalent principle.

Even more measures will be possible when SHIFT-2 and SHIFT-3 are launched

In the near future, the team wants to go further and explore the feasibility of high-precision atomic interferometry to test Einstein’s principle of equivalence. Two additional rocket launches, MAIUS-2 and MAIUS-3, are planned for 2022 and 2023, and in these missions the team also intends to use potassium atoms, in addition to rubidium atoms, to produce interference patterns. By comparing the free fall acceleration of the two types of atoms, one can facilitate a test of the equivalent principle with previously unattainable accuracy. “Undertaking such an experiment would be a future target for satellites or the International Space Station ISS, possibly within BECCAL, the Bose Einstein Condensed and Cold Atomic Laboratory, which is currently in the planning phase. Be limited by the limited free time on a rocket.” , explained Dr. André Wenzlawski, a member of the Windpassinger research group at JGU, who is directly involved in the launch missions.

The experiment is one example of the highly active research field of quantum technologies, which also includes developments in the fields of quantum communication, quantum sensors, and quantum computing.

The MAIUS-1 sound rocket mission was carried out as a joint project involving Leibniz University Hannover, the University of Bremen, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Universität Hamburg, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, the Ferdinand-Braun-Institut in Berlin, and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). ). Funding for the project was arranged by the Space Administration of the German Aerospace Center and funding was provided by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy on the basis of a resolution of the German Bundestag.

Ultracold atomic interferometry in space

Additional information:
Maike D. Lachmann et al, Ultracold atomic interferometry in space, Natural Communications (2021). DOI: 10.1038 / s41467-021-21628-z

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