NASA researchers, led by Project Scientist for the proposed project known as the Cold Atom Lab, Rob Thompson, are reportedly planning to create the coldest known location in the universe. The desire for ever-colder temperatures for experimentation among physicists has been ongoing for more than 100 years and this team of NASA scientists hopes to take a major leap forward with this project. The lab is scheduled to be launched to its permanent home on the International Space Station some time in 2016 and is intended to facilitate work that will result in a better understanding of quantum physics.
The location of the lab on the International Space Station is key to their work, as the near absence of gravitational pull will allow the scientists to create much cooler temperatures than they are able to on the ground.
Thompson says that he and his team of NASA scientists intend to lower temperatures in the lab to 100-pico-Kelvin, or just “one ten billionth of a degree above absolute zero,” the temperature at which it is theorized, that thermal activity of all atoms ceases. The researchers theorize that when objects are exposed to the extreme cold temperatures in the Cold Atom Lab, new forms of matter will be created as the notion of solids, liquids and gases will no longer apply. This newly created matter is known as quantum matter and is studied in probabilities rather than the relative certainties that make up the laws of physics under “normal” conditions.
In the quantum realm, matter can behave in vastly different ways, even appearing in more than one place simultaneously. Thompson describes the planned work as “entering the realm of the unknown” and no one is certain where it will lead at this point. The NASA research team believes that they will be able to create work in this proposed coldest known location in the universe in intervals of up to 20 seconds and that they may be able to create atomic wave packets that are capable of being seen by the naked eye.
According to Thompson, the intended starting point for their work will be a study of what are known as Bose-Einstein condensates in honor of the two scientists who theorized their existence long before their actual discovery in 2001. The condensates when created and combined behave differently than ordinary gases, interacting in unique ways rather than actually mixing. The highly-anticipated lab will allow NASA scientists to observe these creations in the coldest temperatures ever possible. It has also been reported that the researchers intend to use the lab to “mix super-cool atomic gasses and see what happens.” Thompson is hopeful that this experimentation could lead to additional discoveries about quantum phenomena.
Thompson includes among the potentially practical applications of this ground-breaking work “quantum sensors, matter wave interferometers, and atomic lasers.” These suggestions are creations that just a generation ago were the stuff of science fiction, now made closer to reality as NASA ambitiously aims to create the coldest known location in the universe to enhance knowledge in the field.
By Michele Wessel
NASA Cold Atom Laboratory