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The quantum frontier: cold atoms in space

16 December 2021
The quantum frontier

Cold atoms offer exciting prospects for high-precision measurements based on emerging quantum technologies. Terrestrial cold-atom experiments are already widespread, exploring both fundamental phenomena such as quantum phase transitions and applications such as ultra-precise timekeeping. The final quantum frontier is to deploy such systems in space, where the lack of environmental disturbances enables high levels of precision.

This was the subject of a workshop supported by the CERN Quantum Technology Initiative, which attracted more than 300 participants online from 23 to 24 September. Following a 2019 workshop triggered by the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Voyage 2050 call for ideas for future experiments in space, the main goal of this workshop was to begin drafting a roadmap for cold atoms in space.

The workshop opened with a presentation by Mike Cruise (University of Birmingham) on ESA’s vision for cold atom R&D for space: considerable efforts will be required to achieve the technical readiness level needed for space missions, but they hold great promise for both fundamental science and practical applications. Several of the cold-atom teams that contributed white papers to the Voyage 2050 call also presented their proposals.

Atomic clocks

Next came a session on atomic clocks, including descriptions of their potential for refining the definitions of SI units, such as the second, and distributing this new time-standard worldwide, and potential applications of atomic clocks to geodesy. Next-generation spacebased atomic-clock projects for these and other applications are ongoing in China, the US (Deep Space Atomic Clock) and Europe.

This was followed by a session on Earth observation, featuring the prospects for improved gravimetry using atom interferometry and talks on the programmes of ESA and the European Union. Quantum space gravimetry could contribute to studies of climate change, for example, by measuring the densities of water and ice very accurately and with improved geographical precision.

Cold-atom experiments in space offer great opportunities to probe the foundations of physics

For fundamental physics, prospects for space-borne cold-atom experiments include studies of wavefunction collapse and Bell correlations in quantum mechanics, probes of the equivalence principle by experiments like STEQUEST, and searches for dark matter.

The proposed AEDGE atom interferometer will search for ultralight dark matter and gravitational waves in the deci-Hertz range, where LIGO/Virgo/KAGRA and the future LISA space observatory are relatively insensitive, and will probe models of dark energy. AEDGE gravitational- wave measurements could be sensitive to first-order phase transitions in the early universe, as occur in many extensions of the Standard Model, as well as to cosmic strings, which could be relics of symmetries broken at higher energies than those accessible to colliders.

These examples show that cold-atom experiments in space offer great opportunities to probe the foundations of physics as well as make frontier measurements in astrophysics and cosmology.

Several pathfinder experiments are underway. These include projects for terrestrial atom interferometers on scales from 10 m to 1 km, such as the MAGIS project at Fermilab and the AION project in the UK, which both use strontium, and the MIGA project in France and proposed European infrastructure ELGAR, which both use rubidium. Meanwhile, a future stage of AION could be situated in an access shaft at CERN – a possibility that is currently under study, and which could help pave the way towards AEDGE. Pioneering experiments using Bose-Einstein condensates on research rockets and the International Space Station were also presented.

A strong feature of the workshop was a series of breakout sessions to enable discussions among members of the various participating communities (atomic clocks, Earth observation and fundamental science), as well as a group considering general perspectives, which were summarised in a final session. Reports from the breakout sessions will be integrated into a draft roadmap for the development and deployment of cold atoms in space. This will be set out in a white paper to appear by the end of the year and presented to ESA and other European space and funding agencies.

Space readiness

Achieving space readiness for cold-atom experiments will require significant research and development. Nevertheless, the scale of participation in the workshop and the high level of engagement testifies to the enthusiasm in the cold-atom community and prospective user communities for deploying cold atoms in space. The readiness of the different communities to collaborate in drafting a joint roadmap for the pursuit of common technological and scientific goals was striking.

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