30 June, the European Commission selected the CARIOQA-PMP proposal (Cold Atom Rubidium Interferometer in Orbit for Quantum Accelerometry – Pathfinder Mission Preparation) under the Horizon Europe call for tenders for quantum technologies for space gravimetry. The use of gravimetry to study climate is a theme to which the European Commission is paying close attention, and this project coordinated by CNES will seek to develop with European industry the engineering model of the atomic accelerometer for the CARIOQA pathfinder space mission. This significant contribution aims to put Europe in the vanguard of developing quantum technologies for space.
Atomic accelerometers are a leap-ahead technology for measuring Earth’s gravity field. Using this quantum technology in space will considerably improve the performance of climate research missions by providing more accurate measurements of the gravity field on a global scale. However, space-rating such sensors raises many issues related not only to the technology readiness levels of their component subsystems, but also to their ability to actually achieve expected performance in flight. The CARIOQA mission will test this technology in space, marking a key step toward its use for acquiring very-high-precision science data from space.
The CARIOQA-PMP consortium , coordinated by CNES, will work to build the engineering model of the instrument. The consortium is composed of 16 partners from five European Union countries, including manufacturers, world leaders in quantum sensors, space geodesy and Earth sciences, and users of gravity field data.
Despite recent developments in atomic accelerometers, space-rating them is a real challenge given the exacting performance requirements of space applications. These inertial sensors work very differently on the ground than in microgravity, making it very difficult to test them in truly representative conditions. The CARIOQA mission aims to fly and test the first atomic accelerometer on a satellite.
What is an atomic accelerometer?
The advent of technologies for laser cooling and trapping atoms has enabled the development of new types of measuring instruments. Quantum sensors work by acquiring an ultra-precise measurement of the motion of cold atoms in free fall in a vacuum. This technology is used notably to obtain readings on the ground of gravity and acceleration of unparalleled accuracy.
What are the potential applications in space?
Operating these sensors in microgravity offers a unique opportunity to improve their performance. This is because weightlessness allows us potentially to observe the movement of atoms for very long periods, making measurements of acceleration and gravity that much more accurate. Using such quantum technologies in space will therefore enable a significant improvement in performance for missions studying Earth’s climate, by providing more accurate measurements of its gravity field.
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 Deutsches Zentrum für Luft-und Raumfahrt, Leibniz University of Hannover - Institute of Geodesy & Institute for Quantum Optics, Technical University of Denmark – DTU Space, SYRTE (Observatoire de Paris, CNRS), LP2N (Institut d’Optique, CNRS), ONERA (Office National d’Etudes et de Recherches), Technical University of Munich, Politecnico di Milano, LCAR (Laboratoire Collisions Agrégats Réactivité), Airbus Defence & Space SAS and GmbH, iXblue, TELETEL Aerospace & Defense SA, LEONARDO, G.A.C. Group