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Laser-cooled atoms to provide quantum gravimeter for satellites

24 Jan 2023

European project featuring Airbus to develop atom interferometer capable of monitoring changes in sea levels.

Aviation giant Airbus is among 16 participants in a new European research project that is aiming to develop a laser-cooled atom quantum sensor for potential deployment in space.

The “CARIOQA-PMP” project, short for “Cold Atom Rubidium Interferometer in Orbit for Quantum Accelerometry – Pathfinder Mission Preparation”, also includes the French photonics company iXBlue (now known as “Exail”), and several of Europe’s leading research institutions.

According to a project fact sheet, its overarching goal is to “prepare the deployment of quantum gravimeters [and/or] accelerometers in space, within the decade”.

In its announcement, Airbus said that the plan was to build an engineering model of an accelerometer based on rubidium atom interferometry.

“Benefitting from the heritage of its research institutions, this project aims to bring Europe into a leading position for sustainable quantum technologies in space,” stated the firm.

In 2021 iXblue acquired fellow French firm Muquans, giving it access to quantum gravimeter technology based around cooling of rubidium atoms using a frequency-doubled 1560 nm laser.

Climate monitoring
Expected to become a powerful tool for high-precision measurements of Earth’s gravitational field, atom interferometry would be sensitive enough to monitor changes in sea level driven by climate change - and the approach should be even more effective when deployed in space.

“The sensitivity of atom interferometers with respect to gravity can be increased using long free-fall times that are available in space,” Airbus explained. “In orbit, these devices can be used to observe global processes like a rise of the sea level with unrivaled sensitivity.

“However, their adaptation and qualification for space is challenging. The CARIOQA-PMP project will mature these quantum sensors and therefore prepare the ground for future high-precision gravimetry missions in space.”

The pathfinder mission preparation is being coordinated by the French and German space agencies (CNES and DLR), with CNES acting as the project lead.

After verification of the source preparation, the engineering model modules will be integrated at CNES facilities in Toulouse.

€17M budget
Airbus Defence and Space is set to lead the instrument development and integration, and will also be responsible for the design, construction and initial operation of the sensor head, the so-called “physics package”, including an ultrahigh vacuum chamber, the atomic reservoir, the magnetic shield as well as surrounding optics and electronics.

The CARIOQA-PMP project officially kicked off in December 2022, and will run until March 2026, with a €17 million budget provided by European Union (EU) funding.

Said to bring together the main players of quantum sensors in Europe, the effort features eight research organisations and six industrial partners alongside the two space agencies.

“As a result, CARIOQA-PMP will secure the capacities for implementing quantum gravimeters [and/or] accelerometers in space within the EU, contributing to the EU's strategic goal of non-dependence and autonomy,” suggests the project fact sheet.

Universe Kogaku America Inc.CeNing Optics Co LtdABTechLaCroix Precision OpticsECOPTIKBerkeley Nucleonics CorporationAlluxa
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