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NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory to Create ‘Coolest Spot in Universe’

This summer, a suite of instruments called the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) will fly to the International Space Station (ISS), where it will utilize the microgravity environment of the space station to form, create, and study ultra-cold quantum gases.

Artist’s concept of a magneto-optical trap and atom chip to be used by NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory aboard the International Space Station. CAL will provide an opportunity to study ultra-cold quantum gases in the microgravity environment of the space station -- a frontier in scientific research that is expected to reveal interesting and novel quantum phenomena. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

Artist’s concept of a magneto-optical trap and atom chip to be used by NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory aboard the International Space Station. CAL will provide an opportunity to study ultra-cold quantum gases in the microgravity environment of the space station — a frontier in scientific research that is expected to reveal interesting and novel quantum phenomena. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech.

CAL, developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), is in the final stages of assembly, ahead of a ride to space this August on SpaceX CRS-12.

“After docking with ISS the CAL payload will be installed by astronauts into an EXPRESS Rack inside the space station,” JPL scientists said.

“Following installation the payload will be operated remotely via sequence control from the JPL.”

“The initial mission will have a duration of 12 months with up to five years of extended operation.”

CAL’s instruments are designed to freeze gas atoms to a mere billionth of a degree above absolute zero — that’s more than 100 million times colder than the depths of space.

“Studying these hyper-cold atoms could reshape our understanding of matter and the fundamental nature of gravity,” said Dr. Robert Thompson, CAL project scientist at JPL.

“The experiments we’ll do with CAL will give us insight into gravity and dark energy — some of the most pervasive forces in the Universe.”

When atoms are cooled to extreme temperatures, as they will be inside of CAL, they can form a distinct state of matter known as a Bose-Einstein condensate.

In this state, familiar rules of physics recede and quantum physics begins to take over. Matter can be observed behaving less like particles and more like waves. Rows of atoms move in concert with one another as if they were riding a moving fabric. These mysterious waveforms have never been seen at temperatures as low as what CAL will achieve.

On Earth, the pull of gravity causes atoms to continually settle towards the ground, meaning they’re typically only observable for fractions of a second.

But on the ISS, ultra-cold atoms can hold their wave-like forms longer while in freefall. That offers scientists a longer window to understand physics at its most basic level.

Dr. Thompson estimated that CAL will allow Bose-Einstein condensates to be observable for up to five to 10 seconds; future development of the technologies used on CAL could allow them to last for hundreds of seconds.

Five scientific teams plan to conduct experiments using CAL.

The results of these experiments could potentially lead to a number of improved technologies, including sensors, quantum computers and atomic clocks used in spacecraft navigation.

“Especially exciting are applications related to dark energy detection. Current models of cosmology divide the Universe into roughly 27% dark matter, 68% dark energy and about 5% ordinary matter,” said Dr. Kamal Oudrhiri, CAL deputy project manager at JPL.

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This article is based on a press-release from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.