Quantum Physics

The Coolest Experiment in the Universe

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Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

 

Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) physicist David Aveline works in the CAL test bed Shown here is theInternational Space Station Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) Cold Atom Laboratory Astronaut Ricky Arnold assists with the installation of NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory The International Space Station, shown here in 2018, is home to many scientific experiments, including NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory. Credit: NASA

 

The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) consists of two standardized containers that will be installed on the International Space Station. The larger container holds CAL’s physics package, or the compartment where CAL will produce clouds of ultracold atoms. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What’s the coldest place you can think of? Temperatures on a winter day in Antarctica dip as low as -120ºF (-85ºC). On the dark side of the Moon, they hit -280ºF (-173ºC). But inside NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory on the International Space Station, scientists are creating something even colder.

The Cold Atom Lab (CAL) is the first facility in orbit to produce clouds of “ultracold” atoms, which can reach a fraction of a degree above absolute zero: -459ºF (-273ºC), the absolute coldest temperature that matter can reach. Nothing in nature is known to hit the temperatures achieved in laboratories like CAL, which means the orbiting facility is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe.

 NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory on the International Space Station is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe. But why are scientists producing clouds of atoms a fraction of a degree above absolute zero? And why do they need to do it in space? Quantum physics, of course.

USeven months after its May 21, 2018, launch to the space station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, CAL is producing ultracold atoms daily. Five teams of scientists will carry out experiments on CAL during its first year, and three experiments are already underway. 

 

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