Space Station Officially Has Coldest Spot In The Universe

Posted: Aug 11 2018, 8:03am CDT | by , Updated: Aug 11 2018, 9:30am CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Space Station Officially has Coldest Spot in the Universe
This graph shows the changing density of a cloud of atoms as it is cooled to lower and lower temperatures (going from left to right) approaching absolute zero. Credit: NASA

NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory is now producing clouds of ultracold atoms inside the International Space Station.

In May 2018, NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) blasted off for International Space Station. The facility was designed to perform experiments under microgravity conditions and to create the coldest spot in the known universe inside ISS.

CAL facility recently hit a milestone of making ultra-cold atoms known as Bose-Einstein condensates with temperatures just above absolute zero, a state at which atoms are at their lowest energy point and become motionless. NASA has never before created or observed BES’s in space.

"Having a BEC experiment operating on the space station is a dream come true," said Robert Thompson, CAL project scientist and a physicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "It's been a long, hard road to get here, but completely worth the struggle, because there's so much we're going to be able to do with this facility."

CAL is a multiuser facility that is about the size of a small refrigerator and carries multiple instruments like lasers, vacuum chamber, and electromagnetic "knife." These instruments can be operated remotely from Earth and freeze atoms to a mere one ten-millionth of a degree above absolute zero, which is the coldest temperature ever achieved.

When atoms are chilled to extreme temperatures, they form a distinct state of matter called Bose-Einstein condensate. Bose-Einstein condensates are essentially the fifth state of matter and behave unlike anything else on Earth when cooled to lower and lower temperatures.

In a BEC, atoms act more like waves than particles as they are moving without friction. These atoms are typically observable at microscopic scales and last only fractions of a second. But on the International Space Station, ultra-cold atoms hold their wave-like form much longer, which makes the space station an ideal place to do this research.

Ultra-cold gases produced by the NASA’s Cold Atom Lab allow researchers to study fundamental behaviors of particles and how they interact with one another.

"There is a globe-spanning team of scientists ready and excited to use this facility," said Kamal Oudrhiri, JPL's mission manager for CAL. "The diverse range of experiments they plan to perform means there are many techniques for manipulating and cooling the atoms that we need to adapt for microgravity before we turn the instrument over to the principal investigators to begin science operations."

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