ISS lab test success on path to coldest lab in known universe

Aboard the International Space Station, physicists worked in a unique laboratory to create a Bose-Einstein condensate. With this quantum matter, scientists will be able to further (and better) explore the wide universe of quantum physics. The results of the proof-of-principal released in a research paper in Nature this week show that this Cold Atom Lab can “successfully exploit the microgravity of space in ways that should allow scientists to create phenomena that would be impossible on Earth.”

Per Nature, this Cold Atom Lab is “on track to become the coldest place in the known Universe.” In January, NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir installed an atom interferometer in the lab. In May, this remotely operated CAL (Cold Atom Lab) was the United States’ ONLY operational Cold-Atom Lab, due to social distancing rules for COVID-19.

“Most quantum physicists would say cold-atom experiments are cool,” said Kamal Oudrhiri, CAL mission manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California,” but to make them cooler you have to take them to space.”

Bose-Einstein condensates are formed by chilling clouds of atoms to near absolute zero. As particles coalesce into singular macroscopic quantum objects, they open the door for scientists to investigate exotic behavior. Because this condensation is enacted in microgravity (rather than near Earth’s gravity), dispersion takes far longer. This allows time for the study of said condensates.

To make this lab the “coldest place in the known Universe,” researchers on the ISS will need to create condensates that last for 5 seconds at an extremely low temperature. Thus far they’ve gone over a single second at 200 trillionths of a degree above absolute zero. In the future, they hope to go down to 20 trillionths of a degree above absolute zero – the coldest experiment in recorded history.

For more information on the work published by the lab as of June 11, 2020, see the paper Observation of Bose–Einstein condensates in an Earth-orbiting research lab. This paper was published by David C. Aveline, Jason R. Williams, et. al., with code DOI:10.1038/s41586-020-2346-1 in Nature 582.

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