While you may be walking in a winter wonderland on this, our northern hemisphere’s shortest day of sun, the Winter Solstice, be warmed to know that there is a colder place not far away… closer, in fact, than the moon’s minus 413 F (minus 247 C) meaured in a crater at the northern pole. That place is in a box on the International Space Station.
The Cold Atom Lab (CAL) is the first facility in orbit to produce clouds of “ultracold” atoms, which can reach a fraction of a degree above absolute zero: -459ºF (-273ºC), the absolute coldest temperature that matter can reach. Nothing in nature is known to hit the temperatures achieved in laboratories like CAL, which means the orbiting facility is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe.
NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory on the International Space Station is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe. But why are scientists producing clouds of atoms a fraction of a degree above absolute zero? And why do they need to do it in space? Quantum physics, of course.
Seven months after its May 21, 2018, launch to the space station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, CAL is producing ultracold atoms daily. Five teams of scientists will carry out experiments on CAL during its first year, and three experiments are already underway.
Why cool atoms to such an extreme low? Room-temperature atoms typically zip around like hyperactive hummingbirds, but ultracold atoms move much slower than even a snail. Specifics vary, but ultracold atoms can be more than 200,000 times slower than room-temperature atoms. This opens up new ways to study atoms as well as new ways to use them for investigations of other physical phenomena. CAL’s primary science objective is to conduct fundamental physics research — to try to understand the workings of nature at the most fundamental levels.
“With CAL we’re starting to get a really thorough understanding of how the atoms behave in microgravity, how to manipulate them, how the system is different than the ones we use on Earth,” said Rob Thompson, a cold atom physicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the mission scientist for CAL. “This is all knowledge that is going to build a foundation for what I hope is a long future of cold atom science in space.”
Laboratories on Earth can produce ultracold atoms, but on the ground, gravity pulls on the chilled atom clouds and they fall quickly, giving scientists only fractions of a second to observe them. Magnetic fields can be used to “trap” the atoms and hold them still, but that restricts their natural movement. In microgravity, the cold atom clouds float for much longer, giving scientists an extended view of their behavior.
You may recall that quantum computing requires extreme cold temperatures.
The quantum computers that Lockheed Martin and Google (s GOOG) are buying — and that startup D-Wave is building — have some pretty extreme operating conditions: they need to run at near zero temperatures for the quantum effects to work. – via GigaOm
It fascinates me that after a certain number of qubits, (1,000?) in quantum computers we may succeed in creating a sentient AI, a “living” self-aware artificial generalized intelligence at or beyond human levels. This is one “way out” possibility with super cold quantum computing technologies. Beyond imagining a sentient AI tucked inside the CAL onboard the ISS, I also enjoyed considering this:
If time is a consequence of atomic motion, is the cold atom lab also a kind of time machine?
This comment on a physics forum explains why it probably isn’t:
… The curious thing is that the flow of time doesn’t really exist in physics, and some … physicists believe that the flow of time is a trick of human perception and that time doesn’t flow at all. Viewed in this light your question is meaningless, because you are asking about something that doesn’t exist.
But even if you take the conventional view of the flow of time, motion does not stop at absolute zero. This is because quantum systems exhibit zero point energy, so their energy remains non-zero even when the temperature is absolute zero. For example helium remains fluid at absolute zero because its zero point energy is too great to allow it to crystallise. So there is no sense in which time stops as we lower the temperature to absolute zero.
Time does not flow? Cool concept.