Like something ripped from the pages of Marvel Comics, NASA will shortly dock an instrument suite to the International Space Station with the explicit goal of creating the coldest spot in the universe. Called the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL), the ice chest-sized box will use lasers to freeze gas atoms to a mere billionth of a degree above absolute zero (minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit), generating conditions more than 100 million times colder than the icy depths of space.
This, my friends, is how supervillains are born.
The point of this unprecedented space experiment is to slow atoms under extreme temperatures to a distinct state of matter known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. When this occurs, atoms lose their free energy to move relative to each other and "clump together" in the same energy state, forming a phenomenon called a macroscopic "matter wave." Of the five states of matter (including gas, liquid, solid, plasma), the Bose-Einstein condensate is both the most mysterious and the most difficult to observe.
While NASA has used the laboratory to freeze atoms on Earth, the planet's gravity has continuously pulled the atoms towards the ground, giving researchers only a fraction of a second to observe their suspended states. By moving the experiments to space, something never attempted before, they expect the microgravity conditions will afford researchers as much as 10 seconds of observation.
"Studying these hyper-cold atoms could reshape our understanding of matter and the fundamental nature of gravity," CAL project scientist Robert Thompson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement. "The experiments we'll do with the Cold Atom Lab will give us insight into gravity and dark energy — some of the most pervasive forces in the universe."
What we hope to learn
Researchers are hopeful that the laboratory, which can be operated remotely from Earth, will pave the way for a number of new technologies, including improved quantum computers, atomic clocks used in spacecraft navigation and even sensors capable of detecting dark energy.
According to CAL Deputy Project Manager Kamal Oudrhiri, the dark energy implications are particularly exciting. Researchers currently estimate that the universe is composed of 27 percent dark matter, 5 percent ordinary matter and 68 percent dark energy.
"This means that even with all of our current technologies, we are still blind to 95 percent of the universe," Oudrhiri said in the same statement. "Like a new lens in Galileo's first telescope, the ultra-sensitive cold atoms in the Cold Atom Lab have the potential to unlock many mysteries beyond the frontiers of known physics."
Unless it's first stolen by supervillains, the Cold Atom Laboratory is slated to arrive at the International Space Station on May 24. You can see a more detailed overview of the technology in the video above.