NASA is sending an apparatus to the International Space Station that will create a spot 10 billion times colder than the vacuum of space in the quest to create the coldest temperature in the universe. Scientists say this will help them study the odd properties of ultra-cold atoms.
Dubbed the Cold Atom Laboratory, a payload about the size of an ice chest aboard Orbital ATK’s Cygnus rocket, it will help scientists observe the weird quantum properties of ultra-cold atoms in outer space.
According to Science Alert, a combination of lasers and magnets will be used to chill and slow a cloud of atoms to just a fraction above absolute zero, also known as zero Kelvin (-273.15 Celsius or -459.67 Fahrenheit). Absolute zero is the coldest temperature in the Universe and impossible to achieve because, at that point, atoms stop moving. However, the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) can cool clouds of atoms to just one-tenth of a billion of a degree above absolute zero, which causes them to move extremely slowly, exhibiting microscopic quantum phenomena.
The clouds of atoms are called Bose-Einstein condensates. They can be created on Earth, however, gravity drags them downwards very quickly, so they can only be observed for a fraction of a second. The microgravity environment aboard the ISS will overcome this significant problem, allowing scientists on Earth operating the equipment remotely to observe the atoms for up to 10 seconds.
By lowering the temperature to almost absolute zero, scientists can observe the Bose-Einstein condensates for a much longer time than ever before. “If you had superfluid water and spun it around in a glass, it would spin forever,” CAL project manager Anita Sengupta of JPL said last year. “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.”
It could also help advance superconductivity, and devices such as superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUID), quantum computers, and laser-cooled atomic clocks. It could allow for the observation of never-before-seen quantum phenomena.
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