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ISS to house Cold Air Laboratory for extreme temperature atomic research

By
Eric DuVall
Artist's concept of an atom chip for use by NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory aboard the International Space Station. The labratory will use lasers to cool atoms to ultracold temperatures, allowing physicists on the ground to study them in a different state of matter. Image courtesy NASA
Artist's concept of an atom chip for use by NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory aboard the International Space Station. The labratory will use lasers to cool atoms to ultracold temperatures, allowing physicists on the ground to study them in a different state of matter. Image courtesy NASA

March 8 (UPI) -- The International Space Station will be home to the coldest place in the universe this summer after NASA scientists conduct experiments in a chamber that cools temperatures to near absolute zero.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology announced a plan Wednesday to send up the agency's Cold Atom Laboratory, an ice-chest sized box that can lower its internal temperature to within one-billionth of a degree above absolute zero, the temperature at which all atomic motion stops.

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The zero-gravity extreme cold experiments could yield exciting new discoveries about the state of matter, NASA scientist Robert Thompson said.

"Studying these hyper-cold atoms could reshape our understanding of matter and the fundamental nature of gravity," he said. "The experiments we'll do with the Cold Atom Lab will give us insight into gravity and dark energy -- some of the most pervasive forces in the universe."

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When atoms are cooled to extreme temperatures they enter a new state of matter, the Bose-Einstein condensate. That is when the familiar rules of physics recede and the rules of quantum physics can be observed. In the near-absolute zero environment, atoms cease their random movements and begin to move in concert, appearing more like a wave. Scientists have yet to explain the phenomenon.

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Scientists on the ground will be able to operate and observe the Cold Atom Laboratory from the ground, but the zero-gravity environment will allow them a longer look at the atoms than is possible on earth, where the gravitational pull only allows atoms to exist in the wave-like pattern for a fraction of a second.

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