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The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) is a compact instrument about the size of a beer cooler, and it uses lasers to generate a super-cooled environment 10 billion times colder than the vacuum of space. It's so cold inside CAL that atoms become nearly motionless; CAL then uses magnets to trap the slowed atoms so that scientists can observe their movements and how they interact.
The vacuum of space is cold, about minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 270.55 degrees Celsius). But temperatures inside CAL will be even colder: nearly absolute zero (absolute zero is minus 459.67 degrees F, or minus 273.15 degrees C).
At that temperature, atoms slow down so much that they begin to enter the same quantum state, exhibiting the same amount of energy as one another, NASA representatives explained. Their behavior becomes more wavelike, and they start to synchronize like a line of dancers — a phenomenon known as a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC).
And in the microgravity of the ISS, atoms are expected to retain this state of matter for up to 10 seconds, offering researchers the possibility of observing quantum behavior never seen before, according to a CAL mission description.
CAL can trap three types of atoms for scientists to study — rubidium and two isotopes of potassium — cooling them to near-immobility in seconds and holding them in magnetic traps for observation by scientists back on Earth.
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.
The process to create the cold atom clouds starts with lasers that begin to lower the temperature by slowing the atoms down. Radio waves cut away the warmest members of the group, further lowering the average temperature. Finally, the atoms are released from a magnetic trap and allowed to expand. This causes a drop in pressure that, in turn, naturally causes another drop in the cloud's temperature (the same phenomenon that causes a can of compressed air to feel cold after use). In space, the cloud has longer to expand and thus reach even lower temperatures than what can be achieved on Earth—down to about one ten billionth of a degree above absolute zero, perhaps even lower.