Context:  Nasa Scientists have observed the fifth state of matter in space for the first time, using ultra-cold atoms which can unlock the mysteries of the quantum universe.

About the experiment

  • A fundamental physics facility on the International Space Station, the miniature Cold Atom Lab cools atoms down to ultracold temperatures in order to study their basic physical properties in ways that would not be possible on Earth. 

What is matter?

  • Matter is the "stuff" that makes up the universe; everything that takes up space and has mass is matter.
  • All matter is made up of atoms, which are in turn made up of protons, neutrons and electrons.
  • Atoms come together to form molecules, which are the building blocks for all types of matter, 

The five phases of matter: There are four natural states of matter: Solids, liquids, gases and plasma. The fifth state is the man-made Bose-Einstein condensates.


  • Condensation happens when all the gas molecules get together and form a liquid, and there will be loss of energy.
  • Due to loss of energy they slow down and begin to collect and thus the matter changes its state from gas to liquid and now this will be called a condensate. 
  • For example, when the water vapor gets cooled, it will be called a condensate.

About Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs)

  • It is a phenomenon where a gas of particles with the right spin properties cooled to a very low temperature will suddenly "condense" into a state where all of the atoms in the sample occupy the same quantum wavefunction.
  • Their existence was predicted by Albert Einstein and Indian mathematician Satyendra Nath Bose. 
  • Chilling atoms: They are formed when atoms of certain elements are cooled to near absolute zero (0 Kelvin, minus 273.15 Celsius).
  • The Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) was created by scientists in 1995. Using a combination of lasers and magnets, Eric Cornell and Carl Weiman, cooled a sample of rubidium to within a few degrees of absolute zero. They won the Physics Nobel Prize for 2001.
  • Since there is almost no kinetic energy being transferred from one atom to another, the atoms begin to clump together. There are no longer thousands of separate atoms, just one "super atom.
  • They serve as a valuable tool for quantum physicists because all the atoms in a BEC have the same quantum identity, so they collectively exhibit properties that are typically displayed only by individual atoms or subatomic particles. BEC’s make those microscopic characteristics visible at a macroscopic scale.
  • As they lose heat, a magnetic field is introduced to keep them from moving and each particle's wave expands. It causes their waves to overlap into a single matter wave—a property known as quantum degeneracy.

Quantum mechanics refers to the branch of physics that focuses on the behaviors of atoms and subatomic particles.

  • It is a foundational part of many components in many modern technologies, including cell phones and computers, that employ the wave nature of electrons in silicon

Significance of BECs: Their applications range from tests of general relativity and searches for dark energy and gravitational waves to spacecraft navigation and prospecting for subsurface minerals on the moon and other planetary bodies.

  • One of the most interesting applications is Matter lasers. Bose-Einstein condensate exhibits qualities of coherent matter, much like the photons in current lasers.

Advantages of studying BECs in space 

  • In the weightless environment of space, atoms aren't pulled down by gravity, so they exist in their unbound, ultracool state for long periods of time. This characteristic enables scientists to observe their natural behaviors in a way that is not possible on Earth.
  • Colder atoms means slower speed and more observation time: With the weightlessness of the space station, BEC’s can float. 


About the Cold Atom Lab 

  • It has been up and running in International Space Station's science module since July 2018 and is operated remotely from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
  • By chilling atom clouds to just above absolute zero — the lowest temperature matter can reach — Cold Atom Lab enables scientists to directly observe unique atomic behaviors, helping answer questions about how our world works at the smallest scales. The new hardware will dramatically expand Cold Atom Lab's capabilities.
  • The Cold Atom Lab is using microgravity to learn about atoms and the quantum world, which could pave the way for new technologies in space
  • Microgravity is the condition in which people or objects appear to be weightless. The effects of microgravity can be seen when astronauts and objects float in space. Microgravity can be experienced in other ways, as well.
  • A new hardware includes an instrument called an atom interferometer that will allow scientists to make subtle measurements of gravity and probe fundamental theories of gravity

About International Space Station

  • The International Space Station (ISS) is a multi-nation construction project that is the largest single structure humans ever put into space.
  • Its main construction was completed between 1998 and 2011,
  • The ISS includes contributions from 15 nations. 
  • NASA (United States), Roscosmos (Russia) and the European Space Agency are the major partners of the space station who contribute most of the funding; the other partners are the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.