NASA in an Epic Experiment to Freeze Gas Atoms to a Billionth of a Degree Above Absolute Zero

Updated Tuesday 7 March 2017 8:51
NASA in an Epic Experiment to Freeze Gas Atoms to a Billionth of a Degree Above Absolute Zero
According to NASA/JPL Today in Review, an ice chest-sized box will fly to the International Space Station, where it will create the coolest spot in the universe. This will happen this summer.

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Inside that box, lasers, a vacuum chamber and an electromagnetic "knife" will be used to cancel out the energy of gas particles, slowing them until they're almost motionless. This suite of instruments is called the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL), and was developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. CAL is in the final stages of assembly at JPL, ahead of a ride to space this August on SpaceX CRS-12.

Its instruments are designed to freeze gas atoms to a mere billionth of a degree above absolute zero. That's more than 100 million times colder than the depths of space.

"Studying these hyper-cold atoms could reshape our understanding of matter and the fundamental nature of gravity," said CAL Project Scientist Robert Thompson of JPL. "The experiments we'll do with the Cold Atom Lab will give us insight into gravity and dark energy -- some of the most pervasive forces in the universe."

Bose-Einstein condensates are a "superfluid" -- a kind of fluid with zero viscosity, where atoms move without friction as if they were all one, solid substance.

"If you had superfluid water and spun it around in a glass, it would spin forever," said Anita Sengupta of JPL, Cold Atom Lab project manager. "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."

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