NASA Will Launch a 'Cold Atom' Experiment to the ISS That's Much Colder Than Deep Space

Sunday, 20 May 2018 - 5:40PM
Space
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NASA
Sunday, 20 May 2018 - 5:40PM
NASA Will Launch a 'Cold Atom' Experiment to the ISS That's Much Colder Than Deep Space
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NASA/JPL-Caltech
When the Orbital ATK Antares rocket launches from Virginia tomorrow, it'll send a fascinating new experiment up to the International Space Station. 

Called the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL), the experiment contains a number of instruments including a box, lasers, a vacuum chamber and an electromagnetic "knife". All of which are designed to mess around with atoms in the hopes of slowing their motion as much as possible, in the hopes of freezing it closer than ever before to absolute zero temperatures.

Specifically, once the astronauts aboard the ISS (and a number of researchers doing remote work from Earth) start using the CAL, they're hoping to use the tools to reduce an atom's motion (and therefore its heat) to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. This is at least 100 million times colder than the space outside the ISS, or anywhere in deep space.



So what are the benefits of freezing an atom to that low of a temperature inside a small, ice chest-sized chamber? There's a few things, the most immediate of which is that the super-cold atoms will form a state of matter called the Bose-Einstein condensate.

As soon as the Bose-Einstein condensate appears, physics will begin to distort into the realm of quantum physics, where atoms move less like particles and more like waves. This type of matter has been created before on Earth, but our planet's gravity keeps messing with it so that we can't observe it for longer than fractions of a second, and NASA is hoping they'll have better luck if they create some in space.

There's broader things that can also be learned from freezing atoms like this as well. According to Robert Thompson, a CAL project scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, this work may also help us understand things like dark energy. He said the following in a press statement from the space agency:

Opening quote
"Studying these hyper-cold atoms could reshape our understanding of matter and the fundamental nature of gravity. The experiments we'll do with the Cold Atom Lab will give us insight into gravity and dark energy — some of the most pervasive forces in the universe."
Closing quote


As the potential for quantum technology continues to grow, it should be interesting to see how the CAL works once it's up in space. It's far more interesting than the other supplies being launched on the Antares rocket, like boring old clothes and food for the astronauts.

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