On May 21st, NASA launched the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) into space on the Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft, a compact instrument of a small size which uses lasers to “freeze” and magnets to trap atoms. CAL uses lasers that create a super-chilled environment 10 billion times colder that in space to trap three types of atoms – rubidium and two isotopes of potassium.
How will it actually work?
CAL will be bound to the International Space Station (ISS) and installed in a microgravity environment where it will catch atoms for longer than what scientists have tried on Earth for only a second at a time. This way, scientists will have a better understanding on their behavior. Even if there are about minus 270.55 degrees Celsius (minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit), CAL will have an even cooler temperature – almost absolute zero (minus 273.15 degrees C or minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit). Atoms will have the same amount of energy and they will start to synchronize when the quantum state takes place, creating a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC).
According to a CAL mission description, researchers expect atoms to maintain their state for 10 seconds in the microgravity of the ISS. The astronauts will be finished when CAL reaches ISS and is installed, followed by being remotely operated from the ground. NASA representatives reported that the disturbance to the space station’s microgravity would be minimized by operating experiments while the ISS is sleeping for up to 6.5 hours per day.
How will it make a difference?
According to NASA, when CAL gathers all the data needed for scientists to examine, it could lead to improvement in sensors, atomic clocks used in spacecraft navigation, quantum computers and technology in general. Moreover, if the temperature gets as cold as expected, CAL will be the coldest place in the universe instead of the Boomerang Nebula with minus 272 degrees Celsius (minus 458 degrees Fahrenheit).