Cold Atom Laboratory

Recently, the Cold Atom Laboratory team announced that they have succeeded in producing a Bose-Einstein condensate at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This is being touted as a key breakthrough for the CAL which shall debut on space station in late 2016. This backgrounder discusses the basics of CAL.

What is Cold Atom Laboratory?

The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) is a facility built by NASA that has been designed to fly onto the International Space Station (ISS). The CAL is set to launch and be installed in the ISS in later part of 2016. The initial mission will be for a period of 12 months which can be extended to a maximum of five years. The CAL will be used by scientific researchers to conduct their experiments.

Why space?

The CAL is being installed in ISS because achieving very low temperatures are prevented on Earth because of the need to support the cooling matter against the pull of the Earth’s gravity. Achieving very low temperatures is a pre-requisite to study ultra cold gases, hence, since this is possible only in space, the experiments will be conducted there.

What are its areas of study?

Once in the ISS’s unique microgravity environment, the laboratory will observe quantum phenomena like ultra gold quantum gases that would otherwise go undetected from Earth. It will also experiment the use of laser cooled atoms for future quantum sensors. The CAL will use the temperature regime and force free environment available in space to form and create ultra cold quantum gases along with studying them.

What is Bose-Einstein condensate?

Satyendra Bose and Albert Einstein had predicted the existence of super unexcited and super cold atoms at extremely cold temperatures in the 1920s. This existence of a new state of matter could not be proved during their time due to lack of technology.

Now, NASA’s CAL mission will help in producing the state of matter known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. When temperature reaches near absolute zero (which is approximately −273.15 °C), the atoms begin clumping together. The atoms stop moving and lose almost all of their energy. There are no longer thousands of atoms, instead there is one large super atom, which is called the BCE.


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