NASA to launch coldest fridge in the universe aboard ISS

7 Mar 2017

Image: Kyrylo Glivin/Shutterstock

Things are about to get an awful lot cooler aboard the ISS orbiting the Earth, as NASA plans to launch the coldest box in the universe to help us better understand quantum physics.

NASA is used to taking part in some cool projects, but an upcoming mission will be taking this quite literally.

This summer, a suite of instruments called the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) will be sent to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of an experiment to push atoms to their absolute limit of coldness.

Cutting atoms with an electromagnetic ‘knife’

The instruments contained within the fridge-like CAL are designed to freeze gas atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero, or more than 100 times colder than deep space.

Lasers, a vacuum chamber and an electromagnetic ‘knife’ will be used to cancel out the energy of gas particles, slowing them until they’re almost motionless.

By cooling them down to nearly the absolute limit of physics, atoms form a distinct state of matter known as a Bose-Einstein condensate, which marks the turning point for physics to enter the peculiar world of quantum physics.

At this point, familiar atoms begin to show more as waves than particles that, when put into a row, resemble a piece of fabric riding a wave. It has never been seen at temperatures as low as what CAL will achieve.


Artist’s concept of an atom chip for use by NASA’s CAL aboard the ISS. Image: NASA

Will aid development of quantum computers

But to make the CAL as effective as possible, NASA will need to remove it from Earth’s gravity and put it aboard the zero gravity environment on the ISS.

This is because on Earth, the pull of gravity causes atoms to continually settle towards the ground, meaning they’re typically only observable for fractions of a second.

In space, scientists have more time to observe them as ultra-cold atoms can hold their wave-like forms longer, for up to 10 seconds. Future CAL versions could allow observations for hundreds of seconds.

“Studying these hyper-cold atoms could reshape our understanding of matter and the fundamental nature of gravity,” said CAL project scientist Robert Thompson. “The experiments we’ll do with the CAL will give us insight into gravity and dark energy – some of the most pervasive forces in the universe.”

Looking to future uses, NASA scientists said that the results of these experiments could potentially lead to a number of improved technologies, including sensors, quantum computers and atomic clocks used in spacecraft navigation.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic