Will scientist on the space station be able to gain a better understanding of quantum physics?
This summer, a box the size of an ice chest will journey to the International Space Station (ISS). Once there, it will become the coldest spot in the universe—more than 100 million times colder than deep space itself. The instruments inside the box — an electromagnetic “knife,” lasers, and a vacuum chamber — will slow down gas particles until they are almost motionless, bringing them just a billionth of a degree above absolute zero.
This box and its instruments are called the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL). CAL was developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is funded by NASA. Right now at JPL, CAL is in the final assembly stages, and getting ready for its trip to space which is set for August 2017. CAL will be hitching a ride on SpaceX CRS-12.
Atoms that are cooled to extreme temperatures can form a unique state of matter: a Bose-Einstein condensate. This state is important scientifically because in it, the laws of quantum physics take over and we can observe matter behaving more like waves and less like particles. However, these rows of atoms, which move together like waves, can only be observed for fractions of a second on Earth because gravity causes atoms to move towards the ground. CAL achieves new low temperatures for longer observation of these mysterious waveforms.
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