Nasa scientists to create the coldest place in the universe, 100 million times cooler than the depths of space
The extra-cold space will be used to look at the bizarre ways that atoms behave when they are frozenClick to follow
Nasa is about to create the coldest place in the universe.
The space agency will fly a cool box-sized chest up to the International Space Station, in which will be created a place 100 times cooler than the depths of space.
In the box, a range of technologies will be used to cancel out the energy of the gas particles inside. By using lasers, a vacuum chamber and an electromagnetic “knife”, the particles will be slowed down until they are barely moving at all.
Once finished, the gas atoms inside the box will be just a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. At that state, all the usual rules of physics fall away and quantum physics takes over.
Inside that box, scientists then hope to explore the strange ways that atoms behave when they are cooled very intensely. The technology that comes from that work could be put to work in a wide range of important technologies – including super-fast quantum computers, much improved sensors, and the kinds of atomic clocks that are used when navigating through 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.”
The box – known as the Cold Atom Laboratory – was developed by Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It is being finished off now and is leave the Earth this August, on a SpaceX rocket.
When the atoms start being cooled inside that box, or anywhere, they turn into a special kind of matter known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. When that happens, the usual rules of physics are suspended, and the atoms behave more like waves.
Bose-Einstein condensates have never been formed in space. Scientists have done so on Earth, but they can only last for a moment – the pull of gravity means that the atoms fall on the ground, rather than widing those waves.
In space, without gravity, the atoms will be able to hold onto those strange wave-like forms for much longer. That will mean that scientists can watch them for longer, too – they might be around for as long as 10 seconds, compared with just fractions of a second on Earth.
By doing that, scientists will be able to unlock a wide range of improved technologies. But they might also help unlock some of the most central mysteries of physics – helping us see bits of the universe that are dark matter or dark energy, and so invisible to us.
“This means that even with all of our current technologies, we are still blind to 95 percent of the universe,” said Kamal Oudrhiri of JPL. “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.”