Over here in Minnesota, we’re quite proud of how much cold we can tolerate. A few years ago, Minnesota was the coldest civilized place on earth. Now, NASA is going to spoil all that pride by making the coldest spot in the known universe in an experiment aboard the International Space Station.
A cooler-sized box called the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) will launch this summer according to Motherboard aboard the SpaceX CRS-12 mission.
Americans and most of the rest of the world will argue about whether Fahrenheit or Celsius is a more friendly, common-sense way to measure temperature, but in science, it’s all about Kelvin. The Kelvin scale starts from absolute zero, where all matter ceases to move and goes up from there. CAL will take the temperature down to 100 pico-Kelvin or one-billionth of a degree above absolute zero.
That temperature is so cold that a type of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate will form. That’s when a bunch of atoms of the same type condense – think of when steam condenses into droplets on your mirror – into bigger bunches, becoming these kinds of “super atoms.”
You can only do this kind of science in space
The ultra-low gravity present aboard the ISS is crucial to the experiment. When performing experiments like these, measurements and observations are done at an atomic level. Down here, the planet pulls the atoms scientists are trying to measure down in its gravity well. Scientists testing on earth have mere milliseconds to measure the results of experiments like these. Aboard the ISS, they expect to have as many as 10 seconds to observe the isotopes they’re experimenting with.
Dr. Anita Sengupta, project manager on the experiment, told Motherboard that the extra time allowed will give the team time to watch the atoms evolve over time, and that what they’re going to find out is “essentially unknown.”
The findings from the experiment, Dr. Sengputa says, could lead to quantum sensors, holographic technology, and more. In the short term, things like better measuring devices and quantum theory test beds are likely results. They’re not exciting, but they’re the next step to the exciting stuff.
“You can’t know ahead of time what technology you are going to create. That’s what engineering is – the application of these observational measurements,” Dr. Sengupta said to Motherboard. “You first create, you first understand, and then the technology applications follow from there, and that goes for the entire space program.”
Before you go, I’d like to take a moment to direct your attention to the included diagram, courtesy NASA/JPL. That’s a diagram of the CAL. Notice that beige box? It’s called a science module. That’s the part where the science happens, presumably.