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Probing gravity by holding atoms for 20 seconds

Trapped atoms to probe gravity

Exploiting the wave nature of atoms in an interferometer setup can be used to provide a precise measure of gravity. The precision is limited to the time scale of the interferometric measurement, which in turn is limited to the distance that the atoms drop, typically just over a couple of seconds for a 10-meter drop tower. Xu et al. describe a trapped atomic interferometer in which the interrogation time of the interferometric measurements can be extended to 20 seconds. The new interferometer design and subsequent improved precision can be used to make fundamental tests of general relativity as well as precision measurements of other potentials.

Science this issue p. 745


Atomic interferometers are powerful tools for both measurements in fundamental physics and inertial sensing applications. Their performance, however, has been limited by the available interrogation time of freely falling atoms in a gravitational field. By suspending the spatially separated atomic wave packets in a lattice formed by the mode of an optical cavity, we realize an interrogation time of 20 seconds. Our approach allows gravitational potentials to be measured by holding, rather than dropping, atoms. After seconds of hold time, gravitational potential energy differences from as little as micrometers of vertical separation generate megaradians of interferometer phase. This trapped geometry suppresses the phase variance due to vibrations at three to four orders of magnitude, overcoming the dominant noise source in atomic-interferometric gravimeters.

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