(Vice) Quantum technologies for Earth observation and sensing are needed in order to more fully understand the vastly complex dynamics that govern our natural world. As one report on quantum applications from the European Space Agency put it: “Given the extreme effects of global warming that mankind is facing, earth observation is maybe the most important scientific endeavour of our times… However, it has become clear that the classical measurements cannot be pushed much further.”
The Cold Atom Lab (CAL) is a tiny lab that was developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and installed on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2018. It’s about the size of a microwave and weighs about as much as a large dog. Inside, scientists plan to conduct experiments on clouds of atoms cooled to near-absolute zero temperatures that all exist in the same quantum state. This June, CAL was able to pass an important proof-of-concept in producing one of these clouds, known as Bose-Einstein condensates.
One goal of CAL is to serve as the most precise matter-wave atom interferometer, a device that will help us in measuring the Earth in ways we haven’t been able to before.
CAL would be unprecedentedly sensitive, which could help scientists understand minute changes to the Earth as they occur.
The primary way CAL would do that is through geodesy, which refers to the study of the planet’s shape, orientation, and gravitational field. As climate change causes ice to melt and the resulting water mass to be redistributed, the geodesic properties of Earth are also changing.
Being able to measure changes in the density of what lies below the Earth’s surface with such precision will complement existing data collected by NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites.
Though the applications of quantum remote sensing in space will be wide-ranging, the experiments are just as valuable for science on their own.
“Sensitive measurements are important because they’re the measurements of the way that we are able to make sense of the physical world,” Joe Murphree, a postdoctoral associate at Bates College and one of the physicists working on CAL said. “Improving our understanding of the physical world relies upon our measurements of it, and that understanding has inherent worth.”
Addressing climate change will be a global effort, and CAL as well as international projects are a start towards probing fundamental physics in order to understand our planet.

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