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Why (Part of) the International Space Station Will Soon Be the Coldest Place in the Universe

An icebox-like lab will help scientists get a grip on a phenomenon that’s hard to spot on Earth

Brr. (NASA)
smithsonian.com

What happens when atoms get really, really cold? Scientists know that they slow down as they approach absolute zero, but Earth’s pesky gravitational pull makes it hard to observe what happens once they hit extreme lows. But come August, that’s going to change when NASA creates the coldest place in the known universe.

That chilly climate will be located in a tiny lab about half the size of a refrigerator. It’s called the Cold Atom Laboratory, and it will be sent to the International Space Station via SpaceX rocket, reports SNAPPA Science. Inside, atoms will be cooled to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero (459.67°F) says NASA—100 million times colder than the deepest parts of space.

If there mere mention of those temperatures sets you shivering, don’t worry. The experiments promise to have some pretty intriguing results. The lab will cool down atoms in the hopes that they become Bose-Einstein condensates, a funky form of matter that scientists only recently discovered.

To understand this odd phenomenon, it helps to remember that when scientists talk temperatures, they’re really referring to how quickly atoms move. More excited atoms go faster and have higher temperatures, and vice-versa. The coldest and slowest atoms could ever get is known as “absolute zero,” which would hypothetically entail an infinite amount of work and is hence physically impossible to reach. But scientists can get to just a hair above that strange state.

That’s when things get weird. Ultra-cold atoms shed their normal physical properties and start to behave more like waves than particles. In 2001, a group of physicists won the Nobel Prize for finally achieving that state, which is known as Bose-Einstein condensate.

Laureate Eric Allin Cornell, tells Sigma Pi Sigma’s Rachel Kaufman that “As things get colder, [atoms]’ quantum mechanical nature tends to get more pronounced. They get wavier and wavier and less like particles. The waves of one atom overlap with another atom and form a giant superwave, like a giant, Reagan-esque pompadour.” NASA describes it as rows of atoms that “move in concert with one another as if they were riding a moving fabric.”

If this sounds hard to envision, don’t worry: Physicists have a hard time seeing it when it’s right in front of their faces. Earth’s gravitational pull is to blame. Gravity makes the atoms want to fall toward the Earth, so the state can only be achieved for a fraction of a second. But in space, it’s hoped that the lack of gravity will let Bose-Einstein condensates do their thing for a bit longer, making them hang around for up to a few seconds.

With the ability to see the condensate for a longer period of time, researchers hope they’ll be able to study how it works—and since gravity won’t be at play, they can compare their experiments to ones based on Earth and extrapolate information about how gravity affects the atoms. According to NASA, the experiments could yield breakthroughs on everything from quantum computing to dark matter. Once scientists have a better understanding of the fundamental properties of matter, they can use that knowledge to do things like transfer energy more efficiently or create more precise atomic clocks.

Space must already have places that are as cold as NASA’s little ice box, right? Wrong. Smithsonian’s Tom Schachtman notes that the moon is just 378°F below zero, and even the furthest reach of shivering space is a puny 455°F below zero. Come August, astronauts may wish they’d packed a parka—but for now, the coldest place in the universe is right here on Earth in the labs where scientists do their short-lived experiments with slow, cold atoms.

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