What is the curious ‘exotic matter’ created by astronauts on the International Space Station?

Astronauts on board the International Space Station managed to generate exotic material, which consists of an ultra-cold substance called ‘Bose-Einstein condensate’ (BEC) that is not solid, liquid, gas, or plasma. “This technological finding will allow us to investigate new aspects of fundamental physics, since this new substance moves between the classical and the quantum world,” said the scientists. Scientists believe that BECs contain key clues to mysterious phenomena such as dark energy, the unknown energy believed to be behind the accelerated expansion of the Universe.

According to the scientific journal Nature , the Bose-Einstein condensate is a state of matter that forms when a gas from bosons (one of the two basic types of elementary particles) cools down to near absolute zero . At that very low temperature of -273.15 ° C or 0 kelvin, atoms become a single entity with quantum properties. The experiment was carried out at the ‘Cold Atom Laboratory’ which has been inside the International Space Station since 2018 and where rubidium and potassium atoms are cooled in a vacuum chamber, using laser light to slow down their movement.

“Microgravity allows us to confine atoms with much weaker forces, since we don’t have to support them against gravity,” Robert Thompson of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena told AFP . This little-known exotic substance on our planet is considered the fifth state of matter and transits the border between the macroscopic world, governed by classical physics, and the microscopic world, governed by quantum mechanics. Thus, these strange condensates can offer fundamental insights into quantum mechanics, though an obstacle to gravity is there: gravity. According to experts, the experiment carried out by astronauts on the International Space Station used the microgravity of space to generate and study matter in ways that would not be possible on Earth. ” The results will change our understanding of physics on a fundamental level ,” they noted. Astronauts discovered some differences between the properties of this exotic matter in microgravity conditions and those observed on Earth. A particular case of the finding was the so-called ‘free expansion time’, in which atoms float after turning off the confinement traps that scientists use.