Space can be very, very cold, but it’s not cold enough for the NASA scientists planning a new ultra-low-temperature experiment for the International Space Station.
The suite of instruments is called CAL, Cold Atom Laboratory, and it’s about the size of an ice-box. CAL has lasers, an electromagnetic “knife”, and a vacuum chamber. It will be able to cool atoms up to a billionth of a degree over absolute zero – about 100 million times colder than deep space.
The experimental suite was developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and it is undergoing its final tests before its scheduled launch in August on board SpaceX CRS-12. CAL will be used for several experiments by five different research teams to shed a light on the biggest mysteries of the universe.
"Studying these hyper-cold atoms could reshape our understanding of matter and the fundamental nature of gravity," said CAL Project Scientist Robert Thompson of JPL in a statement. "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."
The extreme cooling produced by CAL will allow atoms to reach the critical Bose-Einstein condensate, a superfluid state. In this state, quantum mechanics reign supreme and matter shows its wave-like nature. CAL will be the first attempt by NASA to produce superfluids in space.
“If you had superfluid water and spun it around in a glass, it would spin forever," said Anita Sengupta of JPL, Cold Atom Lab project manager. "There's no viscosity to slow it down and dissipate the kinetic energy. If we can better understand the physics of superfluids, we can possibly learn to use those for more efficient transfer of energy."
On Earth, these states last for a fraction of a second before they fall to the bottom of the experiment. Inside CAL, they are estimated to last between five and 10 seconds as they move in freefall around the Earth. Future developments might stretch this to hundreds of seconds.
Cracking the properties of the Bose-Einstein condensate might help with several technologies, including energy transmission, quantum computers, and more.
But it’s not just technology. Being free of the shackles of gravity will allow the ultra-cool atoms to behave like they are in deep space and may give us a hint about the true nature of dark energy, the mysterious substance responsible for the accelerated expansion of the universe.