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Phys Rev Lett. 2009 Jul 31;103(5):053002. Epub 2009 Jul 30.

Metastable helium: a new determination of the longest atomic excited-state lifetime.

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  • 1ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum-Atom Optics, The Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia.


Exited atoms may relax to the ground state by radiative decay, a process which is usually very fast (of order nanoseconds). However, quantum-mechanical selection rules can prevent such rapid decay, in which case these "metastable" states can have lifetimes of order seconds or longer. In this Letter, we determine experimentally the lifetime of the longest-lived neutral atomic state-the first excited state of helium (the 2(3)S1 metastable state)-to the highest accuracy yet measured. We use laser cooling and magnetic trapping to isolate a cloud of metastable helium (He*) atoms from their surrounding environment, and measure the decay rate to the ground 1(1)S0 state via extreme ultraviolet (XUV) photon emission. This is the first measurement using a virtually unperturbed ensemble of isolated helium atoms, and yields a value of 7870(510) seconds, in excellent agreement with the predictions of quantum electrodynamic theory.

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