NASA has plans to create the ‘coolest spot in the universe’ by freezing gas atoms creating an advance that may offer new insights into gravity and dark matter. For this purpose, NASA will send an ice chest-sized box to the International Space Station (ISS).
The lasers, a vacuum chamber and electromagnetic ‘knife’ inside the box will kill the energy of gas particles by slowing them until they reach an almost motionless state.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the US has assembled the suit of instruments which is called the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL). The CAL will be sent to space aboard the SpaceX CRS-12 in August.
CAL’s instruments are designed in such a fashion that they are capable of freezing gas atoms to a mere billionth of a degree above absolute zero – 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,” said Thompson.
Cooled to extreme temperatures inside of CAL, the atoms can form distinct state of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate.
The familiar rules of physics recede and quantum physics start to take over when the atoms enter this stage. It is observed that the matter behaves less like particles and more like waves.
Rows of atoms move in concert with one another as if they were riding a moving fabric. These mysterious waveforms have never been seen at temperatures as low as what CAL will achieve.
NASA has never before created or observed Bose-Einstein condensates in space. On Earth, the pull of gravity causes atoms to continually settle towards the ground, meaning they are typically only observable for fractions of a second.
However, on the ISS, ultra-cold atoms can hold their wave-like forms longer while in freefall. That offers scientists a longer window to understand physics at its most basic level.
Thompson estimated that CAL will allow Bose-Einstein condensates to be observable for up to five to 10 seconds; future development of the technologies used on CAL could allow them to last for hundreds of seconds.
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. There’s no viscosity to slow it down and dissipate the kinetic energy,” said Anita Sengupta of JPL, Cold Atom Lab project manager.
“If we can better understand the physics of superfluids, we can possibly learn to use those for more efficient transfer of energy,” said Sengupta.
(With inputs from PTI)