NASA’s Atomic Fridge Will Make the ISS the Coldest Known Place in the Universe
Putting NASA’s Cold Atom Lab in space will allow quantum states to last for far longer than on Earth, offering researchers unprecedented insight into the quantum realm. Later this year, a small part of the International Space Station will become 10 billion times colder than the average temperature of the vacuum of space thanks to the Cold Atom Lab (CAL). Once it’s on the space station, this atomic fridge will be the coldest known place in the universe and will allow physicists to ‘see’ into the quantum realm in a way that would never be possible on Earth.
In a normal room, “atoms are bouncing off one another in all directions at a few hundred meters per second,” Rob Thompson, a NASA scientist working on CAL explained in a statement. CAL, however, can reach temperatures that are just one ten billionth of a degree above absolute zero—the point at which matter loses all its thermal energy—which means that this chaotic atomic motion comes to a near standstill. CAL uses magnetic fields and lasers traps to capture the gaseous atoms and cool them to nearly absolute zero.
Since all the atoms have the same energy levels at that point, these effectively motionless atoms condense into a state of quantum matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate. This state of matter means that the atoms have the properties of one continuous wave rather discrete particles.