Space Station Creates Bizarre ‘Fifth State Of Matter’

One of the coldest places in the universe – a device on the International Space Station – has created a bizarre fifth state of matter.


According to the New Scientist of June 11, the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) was launched to the International Space Station in 2018 to study a strange condensed matter state called Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC). The suitcase-sized device freezes rubidium and potassium atoms in a vacuum chamber, using lasers to slow them down. The resulting cloud of atoms is then controlled by a magnetic field and they are cooled to minus 273 degrees Celsius, close to absolute zero, to form the BEC.

Physicists Albert Einstein and Satyendra Nath Bors theorized in the 1920s that this state of cold matter was the fifth state of matter after the solid, liquid, gas and plasma states. It is a supercooled gas that no longer behaves as a single atom or particle but exists in a single quantum state.

“This is quite remarkable because it allows you to have a quantum mechanical object visible to the naked eye,” said Michael Rahman of leibniz University in Hanover, Germany.

The BEC has been produced in various experiments on Earth since 1995, but they are hampered by gravity, which causes the cloud of atoms to collapse in an instant, the report says. The international Space Station’s microgravity environment allows them to remain stable for seconds, allowing scientists to study them in more detail.

Robert Thompson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and colleagues, who have been operating the cold Atom laboratory remotely, recently published their preliminary results. It’s basically proof that the machine works, but it gives you hope for the future.

The report said preliminary results showed a difference in BEC’s performance on track. The team found that about half of the atoms formed a circular cloud around the BEC body. On the ground, these atoms would be dropped by gravity, but in the international Space Station’s microgravity environment, the cloud would remain suspended.


The researchers hope to use the experiment to observe quantum-level collisions in the near future. They also hope to detect ripples in space-time called gravitational waves by monitoring disturbances in the motion of atoms.

Later, the experiment could be used to test other theories, such as Einstein’s principle of equivalence, which states that all objects have the same acceleration in a given gravitational field. Experiments in microgravity can reveal whether there is a violation. “It’s usually unwise not to trust Einstein, but it’s always important to verify these things,” Thompson said.

NASA is continuing to research and develop quantum technology in orbit after launching and operating the Cold Atom Laboratory. The multi-purpose research facility has flown more than 400 million kilometers with the INTERNATIONAL Space Station since June 2018 and is operated remotely by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.