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Measurement of gravitational acceleration by dropping atoms


Laser-cooling of atoms and atom-trapping are finding increasing application in many areas of science1. One important use of laser-cooled atoms is in atom interferometers2. In these devices, an atom is placed into a superposition of two or more spatially separated atomic states; these states are each described by a quantum-mechanical phase term, which will interfere with one another if they are brought back together at a later time. Atom interferometers have been shown to be very precise inertial sensors for acceleration3,4, rotation5 and for the measurement of the fine structure constant6. Here we use an atom interferometer based on a fountain of laser-cooled atoms to measure g, the acceleration of gravity. Through detailed investigation and elimination of systematic effects that may affect the accuracy ofthe measurement, we achieve an absolute uncertainty of Δg/g ≈ 3 × 10−9, representing a million-fold increase in absoluteaccuracy compared with previous atom-interferometer experiments7. We also compare our measurement with the value of g obtained at the same laboratory site using a Michelson interferometer gravimeter (a modern equivalent of Galileo's ‘leaning tower’ experiment in Pisa). We show that the macroscopic glass object used in this instrument falls with the same acceleration, to within 7 parts in 109, as a quantum-mechanical caesium atom.

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Figure 1
Figure 2: Typical Doppler-sensitive interferometer fringe for T = 160 ms.
Figure 3: Comparison between experimental data and tide models.


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We thank G. Sasagawa, H. G. Scherneck, J. Goodkind, M. McWilliams and R.Jachens for helping in the geophysical aspects of this work. K.Y.C. was supported by the National University of Singapore. This work is supported in part by the NSF and the AFOSR.

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Correspondence to Steven Chu.

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Peters, A., Chung, K. & Chu, S. Measurement of gravitational acceleration by dropping atoms. Nature 400, 849–852 (1999).

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