With their ability to slow down light by 100 million or more times, does this mean that Bose-Einstein Condensates have very high refractive indexes and therefore excellent for telescope use?
By: Vanessa Uy
Though not yet mentioned - as far as I know - throughout Star Trek’s 40 or so years of history, just imagine a substance with the ability to slow down light from 300 million meters per second to 3 meters per second – the speed of a little girl riding a bike. With a substance like this, can we ever make the ultimate refracting telescope – i.e. the kind that uses lenses to magnify far away objects – using this substance as our lens?
For about 8 years or so, scientists have been experimenting with Bose-Einstein Condensate and had been observing their property of being able to slow down the speed of light as it passes through them by a factor of 100 million – even a little bit more in subsequent laboratory experiments. Given this kind of refractive index, which since hitherto we can only dream of, will we be soon making astronomical telescopes using Bose-Einstein Condensate for the lenses?
Currently, Bose-Einstein Condensates are still seen as mere “laboratory curiosity”. But since lab experiments have shown that given their ability to slow down light, Bose-Einstein Condensates certainly have refractive indexes several order of magnitudes greater than the ophthalmology-grade glass – which is 35% lead to increase it’s refractive index - currently used as optical lenses in telescope construction. Even the refractive index of diamond lenses – even if you can afford to use one – still pales in comparison to a lens constructed out of Bose-Einstein Condensate.
The higher the refractive index means the smaller or more compact you can make your telescope compared to one made using lenses with a lower refractive index, even if both of them are rated with the same powers of magnification. Looks like Bose-Einstein Condensates will have their first practical use in the field of astronomy. But if Bose-Einstein Condensates are a miracle material when it comes to refracting telescope construction, how come nobody has built one yet?
Using present technology, Bose-Einstein Condensates exists only in temperatures very near to that of absolute zero. It would be very impractical to construct a Bose-Einstein Condensate telescope the size of a Soviet-era RPG-7 with magnification ability comparable to that of the Keck telescope in Hawaii. When it’s cooling system – to maintain the structural integrity of the Bose-Einstein Condensate lenses – is the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Given the somewhat “rapid” advances in technology, a Bose-Einstein Condensate astronomical telescope could be built – someday. Remember back in the 1980’s where 12-bit digital video processing and CCD or charge coupled device cameras with peak quantum efficiencies approaching 85% can only be found in US National Security Agency reconnaissance satellites. Today 12-bit digital video processing is now de rigeur in DVD players – even those made in China. And high quantum efficiency CCD cameras can be easily bought in better specialist astronomy shops at prices from 200 to 1,000 US dollars each – which is nigh on impossible to purchase during the Reagan Administration. Plus those bolometer-on-a-chip helmet-mounted thermal-imaging cameras used by firefighters that used to cost 6,000 dollars 15 years ago can now even be bought for less than the hundred dollars in some garage sales and swap meets.
Technological advances always mean a quantum leap in performance coupled by a dramatic reduction in price and widespread ability. Who knows that 200 years from now, telescopes made from room temperature Bose-Einstein Condensate lenses will be widely available, even to middle-school kids. Too bad Gene Roddenberry haven’t built one for Captain James T. Kirk in the original series of Star Trek.