Despite what many people may tell you, Las Vegas’ Boulevard isn’t actually the coolest place in the universe. Rather, that honor could go to one of two spots: a nebula in space or the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL).
Either way, you’d better grab your woollens, because these places are really, really, insanely cold.
This summer, NASA is trying to simulate the coldest spot in the Universe in an ice chest-sized box. This box will eventually fly to the International Space Station, where it will create the coldest spot in the universe.
The box called the Cold Atom Laboratory is specially designed to frost freeze gas atoms. Guess up to how much? A mind numbing up to a bare billionth of a degree above absolute zero.
That’s approximately 100 million times colder than any other known place, even more than the dark depths of space.
Wow, simply bone chilling.
NASA’s COLD ATOM LABORATORY DESIGN
The team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Cold Atom Laboratory has outlined an ice box which holds lasers, a vacuum chamber and an electromagnetic “knife” to slow down the particles to almost an immobile state.
The lasers in the box will establish an environment which will be a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero. Then, an electromagnetic knife will remove the hottest atoms in the box. Thus, the remaining atoms will cool down even further.
“In a sense, it is very similar to blowing on the top of a hot cup of coffee,” said project scientist Robert Thompson, who oversees the Cold Atom Lab at NASA’s JPL.
“When you blow on the top of a cup of coffee you are helping the hottest atoms escape.”
The instrument is still in its last stage of development so this mission is set to launch in August on board SpaceX CRS-12, going to be its first massive test.
Five different scientific research teams shed light on the large enigmas of the universe by using CAL for various experiments. One of them is Noble prize winner Eric Cornell of the University of Colorado, Boulder and the National Institute for Standards and Technology who created the first Bose-Einstein condensates on Earth in a lab setting in 1995.
INSIGHT INTO GRAVITY AND DARK ENERGY
“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 in a statement.
“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.”
At this ultra-low temperature, the normal rules of physics will not be applied anymore to the atoms as they will function in a totally different manner and will gain a great interest of researchers as particles will start acting more like waves.
Once cooled, they will reach a critical state called a Bose-Einstein condensate, a superfluid state. CAL will be the first attempt by NASA to produce superfluids in space where particles seem fluid but friction cannot slow them down.
“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 will be no viscosity to slow it down and to expand the kinetic energy. By better understanding the physics of superfluids, we can probably learn to use those for more effective transmission of energy.
On Earth, these states last for a fraction of a second but inside CAL, they are estimated to last between 5 and 10 seconds as they move in freefall around the Earth. Future developments might last this to hundreds of seconds.
LEADS TO MORE IMPROVED TECHNOLOGIES
Not only this will help in describing what binds classical and quantum physics together but could lead to more accurate sensors, telescopes, and the atomic clocks useful in spacecraft navigation, and could even speed up the competition towards the world’s first quantum computer by a more better understanding of Bose-Einstein condensates.
“Like a new lens in Galileo’s first telescope, the ultra-sensitive cold atoms in the Cold Atom Lab have the potential to unlock many mysteries beyond the frontiers of known physics,” says Kamal Oudrhiri, deputy project manager of the CAL.
Bose-Einstein condensate properties might be useful in various technologies including energy transmission, quantum computers etc.
But it is not just technology, being free of the restrictions of gravity it will allow the ultra-cool atoms to act as they are in deep space and may give us a clue about the actual nature of dark energy, the secret substance responsible for the sped up the expansion of the universe.
WATCH THE VIDEO HERE
A new four-minute ScienceCast video explores the strange quantum realm of NASA’s new Cold Atom Lab.
For more information about the Cold Atom Lab, visit:http://coldatomlab.jpl.nasa.gov/