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redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
The coldest spot in the universe will soon be aboard the International Space Station (ISS), as NASA researchers are developing a new device that will allow them to study matter at temperatures nearing absolute zero, the US space agency has announced.
At absolute zero, all of the thermal activity of atoms theoretically halts and the ordinary concepts pertaining to the states of matter are no longer relevant. The new device, the Cold Atom Lab, will ideally create conditions equal to just one ten-billionth of a degree above absolute zero when it launches in 2016.
“We’re going to study matter at temperatures far colder than are found naturally,” explained project scientist Rob Thompson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “We aim to push effective temperatures down to 100 pico-Kelvin.”
By studying atoms interacting at that temperature, the researchers could potentially discover new forms of matter and novel quantum phenomena. The branch of physics known as quantum mechanics describes the bizarre rules of light and matter on atomic scales. In this uncertain world that runs on probability, the researchers explained that matter could be in two places at the same time and objects could behave as both particles and waves.
According to Thompson, he and his colleagues will begin by analyzing Bose-Einstein Condensates (BECs), a state of matter of a dilute gas of bosons cooled to near-absolute zero. Under these conditions, the majority of those bosons could occupy the lowest quantum state. If you create two BECs and put them together, they interfere with each other like waves rather than mixing like ordinary gases, the research team explained.
An atom in one BEC can add itself to an atom in another BEC, somehow producing no atom at all, Thompson’s team said. Thanks to the Cold Atom Lab, they will be able to look at this phenomenon at potentially the lowest temperatures ever. They will also be able to mix super-cool atomic gasses and observe the results.
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“Mixtures of different types of atoms can float together almost completely free of perturbations, allowing us to make sensitive measurements of very weak interactions. This could lead to the discovery of interesting and novel quantum phenomena,” Thompson said.
“The space station is the best place to do this research. Microgravity allows researchers to cool materials to temperatures much colder than are possible on the ground,” the space agency added. As Thompson explained, quantum gases behave much like regular gases in that they cool when they expand.
With normal gases, when you spray gases in an aerosol can, the can cools. The Cold Atom Lab will use a similar approach, using what is known as a magnetic trap in lieu of the can. On the ISS, Thompson said, the traps can be made weaker since they do not have to deal with gravity’s impact on the atoms. The weaker traps will allow gases to expand and cool to temperatures that are lower than what can be achieved on Earth.
“No one knows where this fundamental research will lead. Even the ‘practical’ applications listed by Thompson – quantum sensors, matter wave interferometers, and atomic lasers, just to name a few – sound like science fiction,” NASA said. “Researchers like Thompson think of the Cold Atom Lab as a doorway into the quantum world.”