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Amsterdam physicists' perfect chrystals experiment enroute to International Space Center

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The Soyuz space rocket that departed for the International Space Station (ISS) on Sept. 10 is carrying an experiment developed by physicists at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) designed to  study the formation of perfect crystals without disturbance by gravity. The experiment will start on Sept. 14 after installation at the space station.

The linking of the Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station can be viewed live on NASA TV on September 12.

The research group, led by Dr. Peter Schall with the University of Amsterdam’s Van der Waals-Zeeman Institute, studies the physical properties of soft matter. This involves designing and studying particles which are approximately 1,000 times larger than atoms. The researchers use the so-called critical Casimir effect (an effect similar to a known quantum effect) to regulate the attraction of the particles in liquids. An example of material that can be made in this way are photonic crystals. The researchers build nano-structures by allowing the particles to float in a liquid. This creates a suspension (similar, for example, to fat particles in milk). By increasing the attraction of the particles – through a change in temperature – the particles subsequently bind together. But the more particles are clustered, the heavier the structure. This sinks to the bottom, making any ordered structure disappear. The weightless environment in the ISS’ European Columbus laboratory makes it possible to study the formation of perfect crystals without disturbance by gravity.

Fundamental insights

Astronauts will carry out the experiments, but the researchers themselves will have direct control. Imaging equipment aboard the ISS will record the growth process. These images will be sent directly back to earth via an internet connection (LAN). Researchers at the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) near Madrid will adjust the temperature, and thus the interactions, based on the images. They can freeze the whole experiment and melt it to start again, or turn it around completely. The result of these efforts, which will hopefully be perfect crystals, will not however return back to earth. But this is no shortcoming of the experiment . The fundamental insight that the experiment yields are paramount.

The project is financed by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). The research team includes Dr. Peter Schall, Prof. Gerard Wegdam and Dr. Sandra Veen from the University of Amsterdam and Dr. Marco Potenza and Dr. Matteo Alaimo from the Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy, in collaboration with Dr . Stefano Mazzoni of the European Space Agency (ESA).

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