Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Observation of Bose–Einstein condensates in an Earth-orbiting research lab

An Author Correction to this article was published on 17 July 2020

This article has been updated


Quantum mechanics governs the microscopic world, where low mass and momentum reveal a natural wave–particle duality. Magnifying quantum behaviour to macroscopic scales is a major strength of the technique of cooling and trapping atomic gases, in which low momentum is engineered through extremely low temperatures. Advances in this field have achieved such precise control over atomic systems that gravity, often negligible when considering individual atoms, has emerged as a substantial obstacle. In particular, although weaker trapping fields would allow access to lower temperatures1,2, gravity empties atom traps that are too weak. Additionally, inertial sensors based on cold atoms could reach better sensitivities if the free-fall time of the atoms after release from the trap could be made longer3. Planetary orbit, specifically the condition of perpetual free-fall, offers to lift cold-atom studies beyond such terrestrial limitations. Here we report production of rubidium Bose–Einstein condensates (BECs) in an Earth-orbiting research laboratory, the Cold Atom Lab. We observe subnanokelvin BECs in weak trapping potentials with free-expansion times extending beyond one second, providing an initial demonstration of the advantages offered by a microgravity environment for cold-atom experiments and verifying the successful operation of this facility. With routine BEC production, continuing operations will support long-term investigations of trap topologies unique to microgravity4,5, atom-laser sources6, few-body physics7,8 and pathfinding techniques for atom-wave interferometry9,10,11,12.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: CAL hardware configuration.
Fig. 2: BEC production in CAL on the Earth and in orbit.
Fig. 3: Onset of Bose–Einstein condensation in low Earth orbit.
Fig. 4: In-orbit free expansion of ultracold atoms.

Data availability

Source data for Fig. 4 are provided with the paper. The datasets generated and analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding authors on reasonable request.

Change history

  • 08 July 2020

    The online publication date in the printed version of this article was listed incorrectly as 10 June 2020; the date was correct online.

  • 17 July 2020

    A Correction to this paper has been published:


  1. Leanhardt, A. E. et al. Adiabatic and evaporative cooling of Bose–Einstein condensates below 500 picokelvin. Science 301, 1513–1515 (2003).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Ammann, H. & Christensen, N. Delta kick cooling: a new method for cooling atoms. Phys. Rev. Lett. 78, 2088–2091 (1997).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Safronova, M. et al. Search for new physics with atoms and molecules. Rev. Mod. Phys. 90, 025008 (2018).

    Article  ADS  MathSciNet  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Lundblad, N. Microgravity dynamics of bubble-geometry Bose-Einstein condensates. NASA Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division Task Book (2017);

  5. Lundblad, N. et al. Shell potentials for microgravity Bose-Einstein condensates. npj Microgravity 5, 30 (2019).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Meister, M., Roura, A., Rasel, E. M. & Schleich, W. P. The space atom laser: an isotropic source for ultra-cold atoms in microgravity. New J. Phys. 21, 013039 (2019).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Cornell, E. Zero-g studies of few-body and many-body physics. NASA Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division Task Book (2017);

  8. D’Incao, J. P., Krutzik, M., Elliott, E. & Williams, J. R. Enhanced association and dissociation of heteronuclear Feshbach molecules in a microgravity environment. Phys. Rev. A 95, 012701 (2017).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  9. Bigelow, N. Consortium for ultracold atoms in space. NASA Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division Task Book (2015);

  10. Sackett, C. Development of atom interferometry experiments for the International Space Station’s cold atom laboratory. NASA Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division Task Book (2017);

  11. Sackett, C. A., Lam, T. C., Stickney, J. C. & Burke, J. H. Extreme adiabatic expansion in micro-gravity: modeling for the Cold Atomic Laboratory. Microgravity Sci. Technol. 30, 155–163 (2018).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  12. Williams, J. Fundamental interactions for atom interferometry with ultracold quantum gases in a microgravity environment. NASA Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division Task Book (2017);

  13. National Research Council in Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration 249–262 (National Academies Press, 2011).

  14. Kovachy, T. et al. Matter wave lensing to picokelvin temperatures. Phys. Rev. Lett. 114, 143004 (2015).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Kovachy, T. et al. Quantum superposition at the half-metre scale. Nature 528, 530–533 (2015).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Müntinga, H. et al. Interferometry with Bose–Einstein condensates in microgravity. Phys. Rev. Lett. 110, 093602 (2013).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. van Zoest, T. et al. Bose–Einstein condensation in microgravity. Science 328, 1540–1543 (2010).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. Kulas, S. et al. Miniaturized lab system for future cold atom experiments in microgravity. Microgravity Sci. Technol. 29, 37–48 (2017).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Condon, G. et al. All-optical Bose–Einstein condensates in microgravity. Phys. Rev. Lett. 123, 240402 (2019).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Stern, G. et al. Light-pulse atom interferometry in microgravity. Eur. Phys. J. D 53, 353–357 (2009).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Barrett, B. et al. Dual matter-wave inertial sensors in weightlessness. Nat. Commun. 7, 13786 (2016).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Altenbuchner, L. et al. MORABA—overview on DLR’s mobile rocket base and projects. In Proc. SpaceOps 2012 Conf. (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2012);

  23. Schkolnik, V. et al. A compact and robust diode laser system for atom interferometry on a sounding rocket. Appl. Phys. B 122, 217 (2016).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  24. Lezius, M. et al. Space-borne frequency comb metrology. Optica 3, 1381–1387 (2016).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Dinkelaker, A. N. et al. Autonomous frequency stabilization of two extended-cavity diode lasers at the potassium wavelength on a sounding rocket. Appl. Opt. 56, 1388–1396 (2017).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Becker, D. et al. Space-borne Bose–Einstein condensation for precision interferometry. Nature 562, 391–395 (2018).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  27. Williams, J. R., Chiow, S.-W., Yu, N. & Müller, H. Quantum test of the equivalence principle and space-time aboard the international space station. New J. Phys. 18, 025018 (2016).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  28. Aguilera, D. N. et al. STE-QUEST-test of the universality of free fall using cold atom interferometry. Class. Quantum Gravity 31, 115010 (2014).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  29. Kolkowitz, S. et al. Gravitational wave detection with optical lattice atomic clocks. Phys. Rev. D 94, 124043 (2016).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  30. Hogan, J. M. & Kasevich, M. A. Atom-interferometric gravitational-wave detection using heterodyne laser links. Phys. Rev. A 94, 033632 (2016).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  31. Hogan, J. M. et al. An atomic gravitational wave interferometric sensor in low Earth orbit (AGIS-LEO). Gen. Relativ. Gravit. 43, 1953–2009 (2011).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  32. Yu, N. & Tinto, M. Gravitational wave detection with single-laser atom interferometers. Gen. Relativ. Gravit. 43, 1943–1952 (2011).

    Article  ADS  MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

  33. Kómár, P. et al. A quantum network of clocks. Nat. Phys. 10, 582–587 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Elder, B. et al. Chameleon dark energy and atom interferometry. Phys. Rev. D 94, 044051 (2016).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  35. Yu, N., Kohel, J. M., Kellogg, J. R. & Maleki, L. Development of an atom-interferometer gravity gradiometer for gravity measurement from space. Appl. Phys. B 84, 647–652 (2006).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  36. Sorrentino, F. et al. The space atom interferometer project: status and prospects. J. Phys. Conf. Ser. 327, 012050 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Chiow, S.-W. & Yu, N. Compact atom interferometer using single laser. Appl. Phys. B 124, 96 (2018).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  38. Battelier, B. et al. Development of compact cold-atom sensors for inertial navigation. Proc. SPIE Quant. Opt. 9900, 990004 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Fang, B. et al. Metrology with atom interferometry: inertial sensors from laboratory to field applications. J. Phys. Conf. Ser. 723, 012049 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Elliott, E. R., Krutzik, M. C., Williams, J. R., Thompson, R. J. & Aveline, D. C. NASA’s Cold Atom Lab (CAL): system development and ground test status. npj Microgravity 4, 16 (2018).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  41. Farkas, D. M., Salim, E. A. & Ramirez-Serrano, J. Production of rubidium Bose–Einstein condensates at a 1 Hz rate. Preprint at (2014).

  42. Jenkins, F. A. & Segrè, E. The quadratic Zeeman effect. Phys. Rev. 55, 52–58 (1939).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  43. Chaudhary, G. K., Chattopadhyay, A. & Ramakumar, R. Bose–Einstein condensate in a quartic potential: static and dynamic properties. Int. J. Mod. Phys. B 25, 3927–3940 (2012).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  44. Tino, G. & Kasevich, M. Atom Interferometry (IOS Press, 2014).

  45. Côté, R., Gould, P. L., Rozman, M. & Smith, W. S. (eds) Precision measurements. In Pushing the Frontiers of Atomic Physics: Proc. XXI Int. Conf. on Atomic Physics, 47–87 (World Scientific, 2009).

  46. Frye, K. et al. The Bose–Einstein condensate and cold atom laboratory. Preprint at (2019).

Download references


We gratefully acknowledge the contributions of current and former members of CAL’s management and technical teams, T. Winn, K. Muse, L. Clonts, J. Lam, J. Liu, C. Tran, J. Tarsala, T. Tran, S. Haque, M. McKee, J. Trager, J. Mota, G. Miles, D. Strekalov, I. Li, S. Javidnia, A. Sengupta, D. Conroy, A. Croonquist, E. Burt, M. Krutzik, S. Kulas and V. Schkolnik, and the ColdQuanta team, including E. Salim, L. Czaia, J. Ramirez-Serrano, J. Duggan, and D. Anderson. We recognize the continuing support of JPL’s Astronomy, Physics and Space Technology Directorate, L. Livesay, T. Gaier, D. Coulter, C. Lawrence and U. Israelsson. We thank CAL’s principal investigators and science team members, N. Bigelow, N. Lundblad, C. Sackett, E. Cornell, P. Engels and M. Mossman, for their guidance, along with CAL’s Science Review Board, including B. DeMarco and R. Walsworth. We also recognize the steadfast support from NASA’s Division of Space, Life, and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA), C. Kundrot, D. Malarik, M. Lee, B. Carpenter and D. Griffin. This work was funded by NASA’s SLPSRA programme office, and operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under contract with NASA. US Government sponsorship is acknowledged.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



D.C.A., J.R.W. and E.R.E. optimized and operated the instrument during the CAL commissioning phase, collected and analysed the associated data, and prepared this manuscript. D.C.A., J.R.W. and E.R.E. were responsible for instrument hardware integration, experimental operation, optimization and data acquisition during the CAL integration and test phase. D.C.A. led CAL’s ground testbed and the integration and testing of the science module hardware. J.R.W. led flight instrument operation and atom-interferometer-related tests. E.R.E. led integration and operation of CAL’s engineering model testbed. C.D. established and led the mission operations and ground data systems during commissioning. J.R.K. prepared and coordinated ISS installation procedures and operations. J.R.K. and J.M.K. led the laser and optics subsystems and operated the system post-commissioning. R.F.S., K.O., N.Y. and N.E.L. led technical planning and provided guidance across multiple subsystems during the integration and test phase. R.J.T. proposed the instrument, gave scientific guidance and coordinated with principal investigators as CAL project scientist. All authors read, edited and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to David C. Aveline or Robert J. Thompson.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature thanks A. Roura and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Science module optical beams.

a, An illustrative cross-section of the science module in the yz plane, showing the optical beam paths for laser cooling and imaging. Collimators (depicted in blue) each accept optical fibre inputs and direct free-space beams into the vacuum chamber. In the source cell, elliptical beam collimators create a two-dimensional (2D) MOT (the x-axis collimator is not shown). A cold atomic beam is directed (its flux enhanced by the 2D MOT push beam) up to the UHV science cell, where >109 atoms are collected in a three-dimensional MOT. In this region, laser cooling beams labelled ‘MOT (a)’ and ‘MOT (b)’ are directed along the yz plane, while a third collimator (not shown) sends its 11-mm-diameter beam (dotted circle) along the x-axis to complete the MOT. Each beam is retro-reflected by a mirror to create a full six-beam MOT located about 15 mm below the atom chip, which forms the topmost wall of the UHV chamber. CAL’s primary imaging beam (also 11 mm in diameter) is directed parallel to the chip surface along the y axis just under the chip, labelled as ‘Imaging (y)’. Fluorescence and absorption images along this axis are collected on the ‘CMOS (y)’ camera. Alternatively, through-chip imaging along the z axis can be collected by the ‘CMOS (z)’ camera, with an absorption imaging beam provided by the ‘Imaging (z)’ light that passes through a 0.75-mm-diameter aperture of the source cell. This aperture provides differential pumping to maintain UHV conditions in the science cell while the source cell runs at higher pressures of Rb and K. The background pressure of Rb and K is controlled by running independent current through each of two alkali metal dispensers: one containing Rb, and the other K. Atoms are collected in the MOT before undergoing molasses cooling and becoming confined by the coil-generated magnetic trap. The trapped cloud is then transported up 15 mm by a second pair of coils, and then loaded into the atom chip trap. b, A photograph of a science module without its front clam-shell of magnetic shields, showing the mechanical structure that rigidly supports the vacuum and optical hardware, as well as some of the thermal management components. More details of the science module and control hardware can be found in ref. 40.

Source data

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Aveline, D.C., Williams, J.R., Elliott, E.R. et al. Observation of Bose–Einstein condensates in an Earth-orbiting research lab. Nature 582, 193–197 (2020).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing