The Cold Atom Laboratory will observe the behavior of gases at temperatures unheard of -- 100 pico-Kelvin above absolute zero. Pico denotes one-trillionth and absolute zero is the temperature at which it is believed that all subatomic motion comes to a stop. The equivalent of absolute zero on the Fahrenheit scale is -459.67 °F.
"We're going to explore temperatures far below anything found naturally," said the JPL's Rob Thompson.
The lab will work with dilute gases called Einstein-Bose Condensates, which are believed to show macro-quantum effects at absolute zero. When two such gases are mixed at absolute zero, instead of mixing they interfere with each other like waves. This behavior is unexplained and the experiment will provide scientists the opportunity to understand this bewildering phenomenon.
When gases expand they cool, and this will be replicated on the ISS using magnetic traps that will expand gases until they reach the desired temperature. These traps are low-power and will not affect the other functions or cooling systems of the ISS.
Cosmic background radiation, thought to be left over from the Big Bang, can get as cold as 3 Kelvin, or -455°F. The only place known to have such low temperatures is the Boomerang Nebula, with recorded temperatures of -458°F, making it the coldest place in the universe.