By launching an experiment to the ISS (International Space Station) on Monday, May 21st, scientists are hoping to achieve temperatures which are about a few billion times colder than vacuum present in space. It will help to analyze the atoms’ quantum behavior. CAL (Cold Atom Library) happens to be an ice-chest sized research facility. Its design and production have been carried out by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. Magnets and lasers are used to chill atom clouds present in the space station.

The launch to the space station will include numerous experiments and CAL happens to be one of them. By making use of CAL to study the quantum activity of atoms, scientists can understand better as to how the atoms will react to these extreme temperatures.

The uber-cooled atom clouds will be chilled to a temperature almost close to zero Kelvin. Such clouds are called Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs). Their atoms are so cold that they slow down. Earth’s gravitational force cannot slow down the atoms in BECs enough for researchers to study them for more than a fraction of second. Hence this experiment can be used to study the quantum characteristics of these atoms. Once aboard the ISS where Earth’s gravity will not get in the way, the atoms can be slowed down to a large extent in the ice-chest compartment. According to Robert Shotwell, project manager of CAL, lasers will cause the particles to slow down to “one-tenth of a billion of a degree above absolute zero.”

Once the atoms have been cooled down, CAL will load them into magnetic traps. Scientists then study these atoms. A variety of interactions and quantum states can be analyzed as the atoms will be held almost still. According to officials of NASA, at temperatures such as those generated by CAL, atoms of BECs can be examined for about 10 seconds. Even though it seems like less time compared to the effort given and contraptions used, it is quite momentous when compared to the minuscule observation time which could be possibly achieved on Earth.

According to Robert Thompson, a project scientist of CAL, the study of these cold atoms will provide useful insights in understanding gravitational properties and matter. Dark energy and gravity are some dominant forces present in the Earth and the universe, and this project could be instrumental in deepening our understanding of them. CAL as a mission has its inception in 2012 and is expected to remain operational till 2020.