The Coldest Place in the Universe Is Orbiting Earth

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An experiment currently on the International Space Station (ISS) has reached an incredibly low temperature, only a fraction of a degree above absolute zero, setting a new record for the lowest temperature ever achieved in space.

The experiment is the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) and its purpose is to create a state of matter like no other, known as the fifth state of matter, as it differs from liquids, gases, solids and plasma: a Bose-Einstein condensate. (BEC) This is the first BEC produced in orbit.


CAL before being sent to the ISS.

A BEC is a particular state of matter that only happens when a low density gas is cooled to extremely low temperatures; atoms behave more like waves than particles under these conditions. The wave nature of matter is only typically observable in the minimal scales, but in a BEC this is macroscopic. The atoms begin to act as a single wave, becoming indistinguishable from each other. Studying this system is telling us how physics is at its extremes.

"Having a BEC experiment operating at the space station is a dream come true," said Robert Thompson, a CAL project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "It's been a long and difficult road to get here, but it's worth the fight, because there's a lot we can do with that," he said.

CAL has reached temperatures of about 100 nanokelvins, significantly cooler than outer space, which is 3 Kelvins (-270.15 ° C) but still not close to experimental records achieved on Earth. The team is keeping an eye on these temperatures, but there is one more important advantage of being in space: BECs are longer lasting, so they can be studied longer.

BECs are created within atomic traps using magnetic fields or lasers. The low density gas inside the traps experiences decompression cooling as the atom trap expands. The longer the gas is in the trap, the colder it will be. On Earth, because of gravity, BECs can only be studied for a fraction of a second. CAL allows individual BECs that last between 5 to 10 seconds, and you can repeat the experiment for up to six hours per day.

"CAL is an extremely complicated instrument," added Robert Shotwell, chief engineer of JPL's board of astronomy and physics. "Typically, BEC experiments involve enough equipment to fill a room and require near constant monitoring by scientists, while CAL is the size of a small refrigerator and can be operated remotely from Earth. It was a struggle and required a significant effort to overcome all the obstacles required to produce the sophisticated installation that is operating at the space station today, "he concluded.

CAL is currently in the test phase. It will begin scientific operations in September and there are many scientists around the world lining up to use it in the next three years. [ IFLS ]
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