Fifth state of matter observed by the scientists for the first time in space

  • IASbaba
  • June 18, 2020
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Fifth state of matter observed by the scientists for the first time in space

Part of: GS-Prelims and GS-III – Science and Technology

In News:

  • The fifth state of matter has been observed by the scientists for the first time in space. 
  • A team of NASA Scientists recently unveiled the first results from Bose-Einstein condensates (BEC) experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS). 
  • In space, the particles are free from manipulation from any of the Earthly constraints.
  • This observation has offered unprecedented insight that can help in solving some of the quantum universe’s most difficult questions. 

Key takeaways 

A breakthrough of ‘Fifth State of Matter’

  • Creating a fifth state of matter within the physical confines of a space station is no easy task. 
  • First bosons, the atoms that have an equal number of protons and electrons, are cooled to absolute zero with the use of lasers to clamp them in space.
  • The slower the atoms move around, the cooler they become.
  • As the atoms lose heat, the magnetic field is introduced to keep them from moving and each particle’s waves expand. 
  • Cramming plenty of bosons into a microscopic ‘trap’ causes their waves to overlap into a single matter-wave; this property is known as quantum degeneracy.
  • The magnetic trap is released for the scientists to study the condensate.
  • However, the atoms begin to repel each other which cause the cloud to fly apart and BEC becomes dilute to detect.
  • The microgravity aboard ISS has allowed them to create BECs from rubidium on a far shallower trap than on Earth. 
  • This gave the vastly increased time to study the condensate before diffusing.

Important value additions 

Bose-Einstein Condensates (BEC) 

  • BEC are formed when the atoms of certain elements are cooled to near absolute zero (0 K or – 273.15°C). 
  • At this point, atoms become a single entity with quantum property, whereas each particle also functions as a wave of matter.
  • Scientists have believed that BECs contain vital clues to mysterious phenomena such as dark energy which is unknown energy thought to be behind the Universe’s accelerating expansion.
  • These are extremely fragile and the slightest interaction with the external world is enough to warm them past their condensation threshold. 
  • Because of this condition, it becomes nearly impossible for scientists to study BECs on Earth as gravity interferes with the magnetic field required to hold them in place for observation.
  • BECs in terrestrial lab generally last a handful of milliseconds before dissipating while aboard ISS, those lasted more than a second. 
  • Studying BECs in microgravity has opened up a host of opportunities.
  • Applications range from: 
    • Studying gravitational waves 
    • Spacecraft navigation
    • Searches for dark energy 
    • Tests of general relativity
    • Prospecting for subsurface minerals on the moon and other planetary bodies
  • The existence of Bose-Einstein condensates (BEC) was predicted by an Indian mathematician Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein almost a century ago.


  • It is a chemical element with the symbol Rb and atomic number 37.
  • It is a very soft, silvery-white metal in the alkali metal group
  • It cannot be stored under atmospheric oxygen, as a highly exothermic reaction will ensue, sometimes even resulting in the metal catching fire. 
  • It is used in fireworks to give them a purple color.
  • It has also been considered for use in a thermoelectric generator.  
  • Vaporized 87Rb is one of the most commonly used atomic species employed for laser cooling and Bose–Einstein condensation.

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