NASA researchers plan to create the coldest spot in the known Universe, inside the International Space Station. The device, known as the Cold Atom Lab, could discover new forms of matter and novel quantum phenomena. Image © NASA
Everyone knows that space is cold. In the vast gulf between stars and galaxies, the temperature of gaseous matter routinely drops to 3 degrees K, or 454 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
It’s about to get even colder.
NASA researchers are planning to create the coldest spot in the known universe inside the International Space Station.
“We’re going to study matter at temperatures far colder than are found naturally,” says Rob Thompson of JPL. He’s the Project Scientist for NASA’s Cold Atom Lab, an atomic ‘refrigerator’ slated for launch to the ISS in 2016. “We aim to push effective temperatures down to 100 pico-Kelvin.”
100 pico-Kelvin is just one ten billionth of a degree above absolute zero, where all the thermal activity of atoms theoretically stops. At such low temperatures, ordinary concepts of solid, liquid and gas are no longer relevant. Atoms interacting just above the threshold of zero energy create new forms of matter that are essentially … quantum.
Quantum mechanics is a branch of physics that describes the bizarre rules of light and matter on atomic scales. In that realm, matter can be in two places at once; objects behave as both particles and waves; and nothing is certain: the quantum world runs on probability.
It is into this strange realm that researchers using the Cold Atom Lab will plunge.
“We’ll begin,” says Thompson, “by studying Bose-Einstein Condensates.”