It might sound like something Dr. Evil would hang out in, but this is no spy-fi movie.
NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) might be around the size a suitcase, but what will go on inside is no less than extraordinary. The space agency intends to use this device aboard the ISS to expose atoms to a temperature that hovers a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. If you think the vacuum of space is cold, the CAL is ten billion times colder, and what it could tell us about how atoms and subatomic particles behave in these glacial conditions could reveal things about quantum physics that scientists have only dreamed of.
The CAL will use a vacuum chamber, along with lasers and an electromagnetic knife instrument, to slow down gas particles until they are nearly motionless by cancelling out their energy, initiating a deep freeze.
Atoms only get weirder once temperatures plummet that far. A quantum physics takeover happens when they form what is known as a Bose-Einstein condensate, a strange superfluid state of matter that behaves more like waves than particles, defying the laws of physics as we know them. Superfluids are a type of fluid with zero viscosity in which atoms move without friction to slow down their kinetic energy, as if they were all one substance.
Studying atoms in this state could unravel quantum mysteries such as why the same particle can exist in two places simultaneously, but Earth’s gravity has presented serious obstacles to observing a Bose-Einstein condensate for any more than fractions of a millisecond—until now. Microgravity allows atoms to stay in superfluid waves for longer periods of time (as in five to ten seconds). Understanding the physics of superfluids could help us figure out how to transfer energy more efficiently.
"Studying these hyper-cold atoms could reshape our understanding of matter and the fundamental nature of gravity," said Thompson. "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."
Further applications of superfluid physics could level up technology used in spacecraft navigation, including sensors, atomic clocks, and quantum computers. Used in GPS, atomic clocks use cold atoms to accurately measure time, and measure where you are on Earth by how long signals take to travel. Your PC couldn’t even imagine solving the problems that could be processed by a superfast quantum computer with an advanced artificial brain.
Now on board the ISS, the CAL is expected to start its quantum wizardry in late September.