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Quantum ‘fifth state of matter’ observed in space for the first time ever

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Science, during this time of pandemic, strives to search for a cure to end the world’s suffering once and for all. However, a bit of outer space discovery can give all of us a little breather that there are so much things we have yet to find out there. 

Recently, scientists have discovered that a fifth state of matter in space actually exists. This discovery paves a way to a possibility of solving some of the quantum universe’s series of curiosities. 

Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) appear when atoms of particular elements are cooled to approach absolute zero. This concept was already predicted by Albert Einstein and Satyendra Nath Bose—an Indian mathematician—a century ago. 

Once BECs occur, the atoms unite as a single entity containing quantum properties. Each particle  also works as a wave of matter.

BECs also play a part drawing the line between the macroscopic world ruled by the forces of gravity, and the microscopic plane, where quantum mechanics reside.

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Photo by NASA & Johns Hopkins

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Scientiests looks toward the BECs as something which holds an important factor to mind-boggling phenomena such as that of dark energy. BECs, however, are also very fragile which means just a slight interaction with the outer world could possibly warm them beyond their condensation point. 

Such fragility also proves that studying BECs here on our planet is nearly impossible because gravity disrupts the magnetic fields which is a requirement to hold the substance in place. 

Now, NASA’s scientists have finally garnered results from BEC experiments back at the International Space Station on Thursday. Robert Thompson from the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, reveals that microgravity which permitted them to confine atoms exhibiting weaker forces. 

The researched published in the journal, Nature, also took note of major differences on the BECs properties created here on Earth than of those done in the Space Station. 

One such observation is how the BECs are supposed to only last milliseconds before disappearing, whereas in the ISS they lasted for more than a second enough for observation. 

It was also microgravity which allowed the atoms to be controlled by weaker magnetic fields which speeds their cooling, therefore allows clearer imaging.

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Truly, this is a breakthrough in the field of quantum physics as to create and know more about the fifth state of matter. The process does take some time and observation. 

The bosons—atoms which have equal numbers of protons and electrons—are first cooled to reach absolute zero via lasers to hold them in place. 

Upon losing heat, magnetic field is brought upon to keep them from moving as well as expanding particle wave. This forces the bosons to overlap into a singular matter wave, more aptly known as quantum degeneracy.

A second magnetic trap was introduced for scientists to study the condensate. The downside is the atoms starting to repel one another which causes the cloud to part and the BECs become too dilute to observe. 

Thompson and his team figured that the microgravity found aboard the ISS permitted them to create BECs out of rubidium (soft metal similar to potassium). This allows them to study the condensate for a much longer period of time before it dissipates. It also allowed them to observe the atoms unconfined by external forces, as Thompson came to say. 

David Aveline, the research’s team leader, also commented that studying BECs in microgravity opened up opportunities for even more research in the future. One such study opened by their discovery of the fifth state of matter is the mysterious dark energy. 

Sources: Nature, Yahoo

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