On May 20, the NASA launched a Cold Atom Lab (CAL) at the International Space Station. This lab is, literally, the coolest spot in the universe, created to explore weird science.
The space station’s microgravity environment allows scientists to observe quantum phenomena otherwise undetectable from Earth, specifically the behavior of Bose-Einstein condensates, or ultra-cold quantum gases.
The extra analysis time could lead to a greater understanding of quantum physics, which in turn could be applied to quantum computing. It may also help us detect dark energy, the most common substance in the universe. While you may not see results for a long time, the lab’s impact might be felt for a long, long time to come.
Studying Bose-Einstein condensates (BEC) on Earth is difficult because they collapse quickly, dragged down by the weight of gravity. The strange atomic behavior, the clumping, lasts only a fraction of a second. “But in the microgravity environment of the space station, each freely evolving Bose-Einstein condensate can be observed for up to 10 seconds, which is longer than what’s possible with any other existing experiment,” according to NASA.
BEC is a state of matter of a dilute gas of bosons cooled to temperatures very close to absolute zero. Under such conditions, a large fraction of bosons occupy the lowest quantum state, at which point microscopic quantum phenomena, particularly wavefunction interference, become apparent. A BEC is formed by cooling a gas of extremely low density, about one-hundred-thousandth the density of normal air, to ultra-low temperatures.
At zero gravity, the ISS can reach temperatures colder than any on Earth, allowing scientists to analyze atomic wave functions they’ve never before observed. Practically speaking, these super cold gases may find uses in quantum computing, improved atomic clocks, optical data storage, and telecommunications. But more importantly—they hold the promise to help us better understand how the universe works
The quest for ever colder temperatures has been a major theme of physics for over a century, leading to such breakthroughs such as the discovery of superfluidity and superconductivity, and more recently to the development of laser cooling techniques and the observation of dilute atomic-gas Bose-Einstein Condensates (BEC) and super-fluid Fermi gases.
Beyond the great interest in the scientific aspects of these phenomena, these advances have also been at the heart of several important devices from superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDS) to laser cooled atomic clocks and atom interferometer-based sensors such as a gravity gradiometer for global gravity mapping.