Prototype to reality

5th February 2018

When used in space, sensors are able to provide a huge number of possibilities, such as being able to map tiny changes in the strength of gravity across the Earth’s surface. The extreme sensitivity brought by the cold atom sensors will mean that the movements of mass with the earth systems can be finely monitored.

The potential for applications is huge, particularly in navigation and environmental monitoring. Steve Maddox, a Systems Engineer based at Teledyne e2v and Systems Engineer and Technology Translation lead at the Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Metrology said: ‘You could tell if the water table is higher or lower than it should be and that’s very useful for predicting droughts, predicting floods, on a reasonably large scale. […] Other applications could include measurement of the polar ice caps, ocean currents and sea level and also for use in deep space navigation.’

CASPA (Cold Atom Space Payload) is an Innovate UK project which partners with the University of Birmingham, the University of Southampton’s Optical Research Centre, Cohesion, XCAM, Clyde Space and Gooch & Housego.

The teams involved in the project hope to be able to implement this technology into a small satellite payload, which will be capable of producing ‘cold atoms’ in space, to test the core building blocks of a future cold atom instrument. Project CASPA should be ready for flight in 2020, soon after the project’s official end date. The project’s objective is to prove that it has built a viable platform for cold atoms technology in space, which will be the first time this has been achieved on a free-flying satellite.

The project was featured in an article by Tim Fryer in the February 2018 edition of E&T Magazine. In the article, Fryer interviews Steve Maddox, who is working with key industrial partners to design and produce commercial products to maximise the potential of Quantum Technology.

The article discusses the apparent difficulty usually associated with understanding quantum: ‘One of the problems with quantum technologies is that they exist in an intellectual plane that hovers some distance above the vast majority of us.’ Fryer goes on to explain that despite this, quantum science will result in ‘technological game-changers’ and that CASPA in particular, ‘could revolutionise navigation and mapping systems.’

For now, Steve Maddox is focussing on building up the ‘maturity of the technology so that it can be accepted for a proper mission in space’.

Teledyne e2v also have another project, REVEAL, with the University of Birmingham, RSK and Gooch & Housego, which is focussed on ground-based applications of the same technology.  The aim of this project is to develop technology to enable us to look below the ground for pipes and tunnels, and to pinpoint more serious hazards such as mineshafts, sinkholes and nuclear bunkers.  To do this, researchers use cold atoms science as ultra-sensitive sensors for measuring gravity.