Last January in northern Sweden, a German-led team of physicists loaded a curious machine onto an unmanned rocket. The payload, about as tall as a single-story apartment, was essentially a custom-made freezer — a vacuum chamber, with a small chip and lasers within, that could cool single atoms near absolute zero. It may sound like a bizarre experiment, but it is something physicists have been aching to do for years. They launched the rocket about 90 miles past the atmosphere’s boundary of outer space, monitoring a livestream from a heated building nearby. Then, just 17 minutes later, they watched as the freezer plummeted back down to Earth, landing via parachute on snowy ground 40 miles from the launch site. Wired elaborates: See, the freezer that the Germans launched has the ability to make atoms clump together in a cloud-like blob called a Bose-Einstein condensate — a phase of matter that exhibits some truly bizarre properties. It’s delicate enough to respond to tiny fluctuations in gravity and electromagnetic fields, which means it could someday make for a super-precise sensor in space. But down on Earth, it tends to collapse in a matter of milliseconds because of gravity. So the blobs had to go to space. Since the late ’90s, physicists have been developing machines that can autonomously assemble and control the blobs during spaceflight. With this rocket launch, they’ve succeeded. The group in Germany, led by physicist Ernst Rasel of University of Hannover, just released pictures of blobs they managed to create [PDF], as well as precise measurements of how they jiggled during their brief trip. “They’ve essentially laid the groundwork to show that you can actually do this, and it’s not totally insane,” says physicist Nathan Lundblad of Bates College.
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