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MAIUS-2 Höhenrakete gestartet

MAIUS-2 sounding rocket launched

© MAIUS-Mission
The MAIUS team and the MAIUS-2 rocket at the Esrange Space Centre

Last Saturday at 8.30 CET, an interdisciplinary research group including Leibniz University Hannover and researchers from the Cluster of Excellence QuantumFrontiers successfully launched the MAIUS-2 sounding rocket into space from the European Space and Sounding Rocket Range near Kiruna (Sweden). During the flight, the team had about five and a half minutes to conduct experiments under microgravity conditions before the rocket's scheduled return to Earth. During this period, various experiments were conducted on board the rocket in a largely autonomous manner. Months of meticulous preparation preceded the launch.

During the MAIUS-2 mission, the research team intended to create mixtures of quantum gases from two different types of atoms as well as to study and control their interactions under microgravity conditions. For this purpose, rubidium and potassium atoms were supposed to be cooled to temperatures of a few hundred nanokelvin, close to absolute zero. The atoms then enter an extreme quantum state, called a Bose-Einstein condensate. Producing these quantum gases requires considerable technological effort, but opens up unique research opportunities. While the formation of rubidium Bose-Einstein condensates was demonstrated and their behaviour in free fall could be studied, the Bose-Einstein condensate of potassium atoms did not form as planned. Nevertheless, the MAIUS-2 flight has been a valuable source of information that will be analysed over the next few months.

Monitored generation and control of Bose-Einstein condensates is a prerequisite for extremely precise measurements of accelerations and forces with atom interferometers. Researchers hope to gain a more profound understanding of the fundamental forces of nature by using this technology in space. For example, researchers will study the universality of free fall using atomic interferometry. Space-based atomic interferometers are also one of the most promising approaches for more precise and high-resolution measurements of the Earth's gravitational field or for navigating future space probes. The MAIUS sounding rockets pave the way for the Bose Einstein Condensate and Cold Atom Laboratory (BECCAL), a collaborative project of US and German partners to study quantum gases on the International Space Station (ISS).

In 2017, its predecessor mission, MAIUS-1, was already considered one of the most complex experiments ever launched on a sounding rocket. This was the first time that researchers succeeded in creating a Bose-Einstein condensate in space. Because of the second type of atom, the MAIUS-2 team had to double the number of lasers and the electronics needed to operate them in the rocket. A technological challenge: Despite the increased complexity of the payload, the researchers had to keep the mass and volume of the set-up more or less constant. Although not all experiments went as planned, the launch on Saturday proved that increasingly miniaturised technology could, in principle, work in space.

The MAIUS-2 mission is part of the QUANTUS IV - MAIUS project. The project is led by the Center of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM) at University of Bremen, in collaboration with Leibniz University Hannover, Humboldt-Universität and Ferdinand-Braun-Institut in Berlin, as well as Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz. The interdisciplinary research group also includes the DLR Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensing in Hannover, the DLR Institute for Software Technology in Braunschweig, Universität Hamburg as well as the DLR Mobile Rocket Base (MORABA), which is also carrying out the launch campaign. The project is coordinated and supported by the German Space Agency (DLR) with funding from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK).