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The Coolest Spot in the Universe


The quest for ever colder temperatures has been a major theme of physics for over a century, leading to such breakthroughs such as the discovery of superfluidity and superconductivity, and more recently to the development of laser cooling techniques and the observation of dilute atomic-gas Bose-Einstein Condensates (BEC) and super-fluid Fermi gases.

Beyond the great interest in the scientific aspects of these phenomena, these advances have also been at the heart of several important devices from superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDS) to lasercooled atomic clocks and atom interferometer-based sensors such as a gravity gradiometer for global gravity mapping.

The 2011 NRC Decadal Survey report, "Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration, Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era," recommended a set of high priority areas in Fundamental Physics which includes research related to the physics and applications of quantum gasses. The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) will be a multi-user facility designed to study ultra-cold quantum gases in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station (ISS). One of the primary goals of this facility will be to explore a previously inaccessible regime of extremely low temperatures where interesting and novel quantum phenomena can be expected.

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The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) is a fundament physics user facility that will operate on the International Space Station (ISS). CAL will produce clouds of ultra-cooled atoms called Bose-Einstein condensates. Chilled to a fraction of a degree above absolute zero -- even colder than the average temperature of deep space -- the atoms in a BEC demonstrate quantum characteristics at relatively large size scales, allowing researchers to explore this strange domain.

On Earth, freely evolving BEC’s are dragged down by the pull of gravity, and can typically only be observed for a fraction of a second. But in the microgravity environment of the space station, each freely evolving BEC can be observed for up to 10 seconds, which is longer than what’s possible with any other existing BEC experiment. CAL is a multi-user facility and researchers will be able to conduct experiments remotely, with no astronaut assistance, with up to 6.5 hours of experimentation time available each day.

CAL is currently set to launch to the ISS on May 20, 2018, aboard an Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft, atop an Antares rocket, from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

CAL was designed and built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, on behalf of NASA’s Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA) Division, in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. Funding for the development of CAL was also provided by the International Space Station Program Office.

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Calla Cofield