Nanoparticles could be used as state-of-the-art space sensors. Here's how

A new program aims to 'make levitated optomechanical sensors a reality.'
Chris Young
An artist's impression of nanoparticles in space.
An artist's impression of nanoparticles in space.

University of Swansea 

A UK consortium is developing a method that uses nanoparticles as an advanced sensor for small, toaster-sized satellites also known as CubeSats, a press statement reveals.

In a bid to leverage the potential of this technology, the UK government has awarded the Universities of Warwick, Swansea, and Strathclyde £250,000 (approx. $318,160) in funding to continue to research the use of nanoparticles and quantum physics for space applications.

Quantum mechanics enables nanoparticle space sensors

The new technology builds upon recent advances in levitated optomechanics, focusing on the motion of nanoparticles held in place and measured by lasers. These advances showed that nanoparticles can exhibit behaviors governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, which describe the interactions of atoms and subatomic particles.

In a new program funded by the UK Space Agency (UKSA), researchers are developing quantum technology to use nanoparticles as sensors in space. The Levitated Optomechanical Technologies In Space (LOTIS) project will last 18 months.

It will develop devices that could measure the density of the thermosphere — a layer of the Earth's atmosphere roughly 50 miles (80 km) above sea level that we know surprisingly little about. This could help better understand the drag experienced by satellites when they reenter Earth's atmosphere, helping to map their trajectories as they fall to Earth.

"We are developing highly sensitive sensors for satellites which are greatly reduced in size and able to perform measurements of the space environment," explained Dr. Daniel Oi, a theoretical physicist from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. "This is part of a wider, international quantum technology program which will extend its applications from Earth and space-bound applications."

New sensors could be used for "space and terrestrial applications"

The project could also develop gravimeters used to measure gravitational fields. This could be particularly useful for Earth-based applications, such as civil engineering, as it could allow better measuring capabilities for areas underneath the ground.

In the press statement, Dr. James Bateman from the University of Swansea added: "I am thrilled to lead this UKSA project, which will create the necessary technologies to establish a functioning sensing platform for both space and terrestrial applications. Our team is comprised of experts in nanosatellites, quantum sensing, and experimental optomechanics, and this project will help to make levitated optomechanical sensors a reality."

We've seen scientists use quantum mechanics to simulate space, such as the recent example of scientists in China using a quantum processor to simulate black hole-like conditions. Soon, though, we may see quantum mechanics play a new role in orbit via potentially thousands of CubeSats that could use these new types of sensors to help the scientific community better understand our planet and its place in the cosmos.

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