Even for scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding gravity, the force’s relentless downward pull is sometimes a drag. Consider, for instance, the researchers who study Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) as precise probes of fundamental physics. BECs emerge when a dilute gas of atoms is cooled close to absolute zero and begins behaving as a single, strange chunk of quantum matter—similar to how wriggling water molecules transform into a block of ice once they are chilled. These odd assemblages magnify otherwise hidden quantum-mechanical effects such as the wavelike nature of matter, making them visible at macroscales. Yet sometimes gravity’s pernicious influence can get in the way.
Earthbound escapes from gravity’s hold involve subjecting BECs to free fall, usually for short spates inside tall drop towers or airplanes flying in parabolic arcs. But the best approach is arguably to leave Earth behind, placing BECs in rockets to experience longer periods of weightless free fall in outer space. Recently, a team of physicists supported by Germany’s space agency reported on doing just that. In Nature Communications this past February, they published the results of a 2017 experiment that manufactured BECs on a millimeter-sized chip in a suborbital sounding rocket almost 300 kilometers above the planet’s surface. The BECs then crashed together in the microgravity conditions, allowing the physicists to study the collisions in exquisite detail. Their mission, MAIUS-1, was the first to successfully collide BECs in space, and it points the way toward new space-based tests of fundamental physics.
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