Published: March 16, 2023

This story was adapted from a version published by the University of Texas at Austin.

A multi-university research team, including engineers and physicists from CU Boulder, will build technology and tools to improve measurement of important climate factors by observing atoms in outer space. 

The new Quantum Pathways Institute is led by the University of Texas at Austin, and scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara, California Institute of Technology and the U.S. National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) are also participating. The researchers received $15 million in funding from NASA over five years for the institute. 

Researchers pose in front of machinery in a lab

From left to right, researchers Murray Holland, Catie Ledesma, Kendall Mehling, Liang-Ying and Dana Anderson in a lab at JILA. (Credit: Dana Anderson)

They will focus on the concept of quantum sensing, which involves observing how atoms react to small changes in their environment, and using that to infer the time-variations in the gravity field of the Earth. This will enable scientists to improve how accurately several important climate processes can be measured, such as the sea level rise, the rate of ice melt, the changes in land water resources and ocean heat storage changes.

Dana Anderson, professor of physics and fellow at JILA, a joint research institute between CU Boulder and NIST, leads the CU experimental effort. The Colorado-based team will help develop new quantum sensors drawing on JILA’s decades of experience in “atomic clocks”—devices that measure the incredibly-fast oscillations of atoms cooled down to just a fraction of a degree above absolute zero.

Other CU Boulder researchers on the new effort include Murray Holland, JILA fellow; Penina Axelrad, distinguished professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences; and Marco Nicotra, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering.

“The collaboration among UT Austin, CU Boulder, UCSB, Caltech and NIST targets the development of very high-performance quantum sensing technology for future space missions,” Holland said. “Work at JILA and elsewhere has demonstrated the potential of these methods for optimizing the design and control of quantum sensors beyond what any human has achieved to date.”

The multi-university group will specifically look at changes in gravitational forces and what that means for climate. As climate shifts—with ice caps melting and sea levels and temperatures changing—that changes gravitational forces around the earth and in outer space. Atoms orbiting the earth react to those gravitational changes. By measuring those reactions, the researchers can give better readings of changes in climate processes. 

“This project has brought together an amazing team of individuals,” Nicotra said. “As an engineer with a non-quantum background, I am grateful to my collaborators for introducing me to the field. I am also excited to see how my discipline, control engineering, can impact quantum technology.”
The challenge for the team is two-fold. Parts of these sensing technologies exist today, but a lot of what they are building is new. Add to that the challenge of sending these instruments into orbit. 

"You can't have manual maintenance in space—once you send something out, it's out of reach; you cannot see it," said Srinivas Bettadpur of UT Austin who is leading the NASA institute. "You have to put in a great deal of work to make sure the instrument will fly and the technology will function for several years, at least, to enable the discoveries."