ISS Utilization: CAL
ISS Utilization: CAL (Cold Atom Laboratory)Launch CAL Instrument Science Mission Status References
The CAL instrumentation, developed at NASA/JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Pasadena, California, will probe the wonders of quantum physics when it launches to the International Space Station. The CAL facility recently hit a milestone of making an ultra-cold quantum gas with potassium, a high-tech feat that puts it on track for launch next year. The planned flight to space is in August 2017. 1) 2)
"Studying gases that have been cooled down to extreme temperatures is key to understanding how complexity arises in the universe, and allows us to test the fundamental laws of physics in a whole new way," said Robert Thompson, project scientist for the Cold Atom Laboratory at JPL.
Researchers with CAL are interested in a state of matter called a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC), which happens when all the atoms in a very cold gas have the same energy levels. Like dancers in a chorus line, the atoms become synchronized and behave like one continuous wave instead of discrete particles.
On Earth, gravity limits how long scientists can study Bose-Einstein condensates because this form of matter falls to the bottom of any apparatus used to study it. In microgravity, such condensates can be observed for longer periods of time. This would allow scientists to better understand the properties of particles in this state and their uses for tests of fundamental physics. Ultra-cold atoms in microgravity may also be key to a wide variety of advanced quantum sensors, and exquisitely sensitive measurements of quantities such as gravity, rotations and magnetic fields.
Using lasers, magnetic traps and an electromagnetic "knife" to remove warm particles, CAL will take atoms down to the coldest temperatures ever achieved.
In February 2015, the team created their first ultra-cold quantum gas made from two elemental species: rubidium and potassium. Previously, in 2014, CAL researchers made Bose-Einstein condensates using rubidium, and were able to reliably create them in a matter of seconds. This time, the cooled rubidium was used to bring potassium-39 down to ultra-cold temperatures.
"This marked an important step for the project, as we needed to verify that the instrument could create this two-species ultra-cold gas on Earth before doing so in space," said Anita Sengupta, the project manager for CAL, based at JPL. "We were able to cool the gases down to about a millionth of a degree Kelvin above absolute zero, the point at which atoms would be close to motionless," said JPL's David Aveline, the CAL testbed lead.
That sounds inconceivably cold to mere mortals, but such temperatures are like tropical beach afternoons compared to the ultimate goal of CAL. Researchers hope to cool atoms down to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero when the experimental facility gets to space.
One area of science to which CAL will contribute is called Efimov physics, which makes fascinating predictions about the ways that a small number of particles interact. Isaac Newton had fundamental insights into how two bodies interact — for example, Earth and the moon — but the rules that govern them are more complicated when a third body, such as the sun, is introduced. The interactions become even more complex in a system of three atoms, which behave according to the odd laws of quantum mechanics.
Under the right conditions, ultra-cold gases that CAL produces contain molecules with three atoms each, but are a thousand times bigger than a typical molecule. This results in a low-density, "fluffy" molecule that quickly falls apart unless it is kept extremely cold.
"The way atoms behave in this state gets very complex, surprising and counterintuitive, and that's why we're doing this," said Eric Cornell, a physicist at the University of Colorado and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, both in Boulder, and member of the CAL science team. Cornell shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics for creating Bose-Einstein condensates.
At a recent meeting at JPL, researchers associated with the mission gathered to discuss ongoing developments and their scientific goals, which range from dark matter detection to atom lasers. They included Cornell, who, along with co-investigator Peter Engels of Washington State University, is leading one of the CAL experiments. "CAL science investigators could open new doors into the quantum world and will demonstrate new technologies for future NASA missions," said CAL Deputy Project Manager Kamal Oudrhiri at JPL.
The CAL (Cold Atom Laboratory) project office is at JPL, which is developing the instrument in-house. CAL is a joint partnership of JPL, NASA's International Space Station Program Office at theJSC ( Johnson Space Center) in Houston, and the Space Life and Physical Sciences Branch at NASA HQ. The CAL Project Scientist is Rob Thompson at NASA/JPL.
Figure 1: JPL's David Aveline and Anita Sengupta are seen with the physics package for the Cold Atom Laboratory, which includes a vacuum chamber where ultra-cold quantum gases are made (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Background: 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 BECs (Bose-Einstein Condensates) 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 SQUIDS (Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices) to lasercooled atomic clocks and atom interferometer-based sensors such as a gravity gradiometer for global gravity mapping.
The 2011 NRC (National Research Council) 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.
CAL will be a facility for the study of ultra-cold quantum gases in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station (ISS). It will enable research in a temperature regime and force free environment that is inaccessible to terrestrial laboratories. In the microgravity environment, up to 20 second long interaction times and as low as 1 pK (1 picokelvin) temperatures are achievable, unlocking the potential to observe new quantum phenomena. The CAL facility is designed for use by multiple scientific investigators and to be upgradable/maintainable on orbit. CAL will also be a pathfinder experiment for future quantum sensors based on laser cooled atoms.
Science mission objectives:
The CAL science mission objectives are derived from the microgravity decadal survey. CAL utilizes the microgravity environment of the International Space Station (ISS) to form, create, and study ultra-cold quantum gases. CAL will be a technology and science pathfinder mission with the first ever demonstration of the following areas:
• Laser cooling of Rubidium (Rb) in a space environment
• Laser cooling of Potassium (K) in any microgravity environment
• Dual species laser cooling in a space environment
• Magnetic trapping in a space environment
• Evaporative cooling in a space environment
• BEC (Bose Einstein Condensate) in a space environment
• Degenerate Fermi gas in any microgravity environment
• Dual species degenerate gases, both Bose-Bose and Bose-Fermi in any microgravity environment
• Delta-kick Cooling to temperatures below 100 pK (pico Kelvin)
• Interaction times greater than 5 seconds
• Atom interferometry in a space environment.
As CAL is a multi-used facility, it will allow the scientific community to propose experiments using the instrument with the following over-arching capabilities:
• Study dual species degenerate gases, both Bose-Bose and Bose-Fermi in microgravity
• Study 87Rb, 3941K and 40 K, and interactions between mixtures with residual kinetic energy below 100 pK with free expansion times greater than 5 seconds.
• Study the properties of quantum gases in the presence of external magnetic fields tuned near interspecies or single-species Feshbach resonances.
• Demonstrate atom interferometry with a Bragg beam
• Demonstration of Delta-Kick Cooling and Evaporative Cooling in a space environment.
Figure 2: CAL Mission architecture (image credit: NASA/JPL)
• Sept. 7, 2017: Early next year, NASA will launch its $70 million Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) to the International Space Station (ISS). Once in orbit, the fully automated rig will create BECs (Boise Einstein Condensates) and do other cold atom experiments, taking advantage of weightlessness to attain record-low temperatures and break ground for ambitious studies of quantum mechanics and gravity. 6)
• March 6, 2017: In the summer 2017, an ice chest-sized box will fly to the International Space Station, where it will create the coolest spot in the universe. Inside that box, 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. This suite of instruments is called the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL), and was developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. CAL is in the final stages of assembly at JPL, ahead of a ride to space this August on SpaceX CRS-12. 7)
Figure 3: Left: The image (science module) shows the vacuum chamber installed inside a magnetic shield. Right: The image (science instrument) is the quad locker that contains the electronics, lasers, and science module (image credit: NASA/JPL)
• May 19, 2016: The Atom Interferometer enabled flight vacuum assembly has arrived at JPL for system integration and test. This unit will use laser pulses to split and recombine atomic wave packets and to measure the quantum interference of the matter waves. The purpose is to demonstrate the technology and techniques needed for these space-based sensors to probe for dark matter and to test quantum mechanics and Einstein's equivalence principle. 8)
• January 29, 2014: NASA's Physical Science Research Program will fund seven proposals, including one from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., to conduct physics research using the agency's new microgravity laboratory, which is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in 2017. 9)
The chosen proposals came from research teams, which include three Nobel laureates, in response to NASA's research announcement NNH13ZTT002N: "Research Opportunities in Fundamental Physics." The following proposals will receive a total of about $12.7 million over a four- to five-year period:
- Dan Stamper-Kurn, University of California, Berkeley, "Coherent magnon optics"
- Jason Williams, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, "Fundamental Interactions for Atom Interferometry with Ultracold Quantum Gases in a Microgravity Environment"
- Eric Cornell, University of Colorado, Boulder, "Zero-G Studies of Few-Body and Many-Body Physics"
- Nathan Lundblad, Bates College, "Microgravity dynamics of bubble-geometry Bose-Einstein condensates"
- Georg Raithel, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, "High-precision microwave spectroscopy of long-lived circular-state Rydberg atoms in microgravity"
- Nicholas Bigelow, University of Rochester, "Consortium for Ultracold Atoms in Space"
- Cass Sackett, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, "Development of Atom Interferometry Experiments for the International Space Station's Cold Atom Laboratory".
NASA/JPL is developing the Cold Atom Laboratory. The facility is managed by the International Space Station Program at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
• Oct. 18, 2013 (update): NASA has set a due date for proposals submitted to the NASA Research Announcement (NRA) NNH13ZTT002N, entitled "Research Opportunities in Fundamental Physics." The deadline for the receipt of proposals has changed from October 16, 2013, to November 5, 2013. — Initial (July 13, 2013): NASA has released a Research Announcement entitled "Research Opportunities in Fundamental Physics." This NRA solicits research proposals from Principal Investigators from U.S. institutions to participate in NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) facility on the International Space Station (ISS). CAL is a multi-user facility designed to study ultra-cold atoms and degenerate quantum gases in microgravity. 10)
• The 2011 NRC (National Research Council) 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.
Launch: The ISS-CAL (Cold Atom Laboratory) instrumentation was launched on 21 May 2018 (08:44 UTC) on the Orbital ATK OA-9E cargo resupply mission of a Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS from MARS (Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport), Wallops Island, VA. Cygnus will deliver vital equipment, supplies and scientific equipment to the space station as part of Orbital ATK’s CRS (Commercial Resupply Services) contract with NASA. 11) 12)
Orbit: Near circular orbit, altitude of ~ 400 km, inclination = 51.6º.
The ELaNa 23 (Education Launch of Nanosatellites 23) initiative payloads of NASA on OA-9E are: 13)
• HaloSat (Soft X-ray Surveyor), a 6U CubeSat of the University of Iowa (6 kg), Iowa City, Iowa.
• TEMPEST-D1 (Temporal Experiment for Storms and Tropical Systems Technology - Demonstration 1) , a 6U CubeSat of CSU (Colorado State University), Fort Collins, CO.
• EQUiSat, a 1U CubeSat of Brown University, Providence, R.I.
• MemSat, a 1U CubeSat of Rowan University, Glassboro, N.J.
• Radix, a 6U CubeSat (10 kg) of Analytical Space of Cambridge, MA, USA, to test a laser communications downlink.
• CaNOP (Canopy Near-IR Observing Project), a 3U CubeSat of Carthage College, Kenosha, WIS, USA.
• RadSat, (Radiation-tolerant SmallSat Computer System), a 3U CubeSat of MSU (Montana State University), Bozeman, Montana.
• RaInCube (Radar In a CubeSat), a 6U CubeSat of NASA/JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Pasadena, CA.
• SORTIE (Scintillation Observations and Response of the Ionosphere to Electrodynamics), a 6U CubeSat of ASTRA (Atmospheric & Space Technology Research Associates), Boulder, CO.
• CubeRTT (CubeSat Radiometer Radio Frequency Interference Technology) Validation Mission , a 6U CubeSat of OSU (Ohio State University), Columbus, Ohio.
• AeroCube-12A and -12B, a pair of 3U CubeSats of the Aerospace Corporation, El Segundo , CA, to demonstrate a the technological capability of new star-tracker imaging, a variety of nanotechnology payloads, advanced solar cells, and an electric propulsion system on on one of the two satellites (AC12-B).
• EnduroSat One, a 1U CubeSat of Bulgaria, developed by Space Challenges program and EnduroSat collaborating with the Bulgarian Federation of Radio Amateurs (BFRA) for the first Bulgarian Amateur Radio CubeSat mission.
After docking with the ISS, the CAL payload will be installed by astronauts into an EXPRESS (EXpedite the PRocessing of Experiments to Space Station) Rack inside the the U.S. Destiny module, a pressurized "shirt-sleeves" laboratory aboard the ISS. CAL will take up the entire top half of one EXPRESS rack. Once installed, there will be no further astronaut involvement; the instrument is operated remotely from the ground via sequence control. Test sequences will be developed by the CAL operations team in conjunction with Principal Investigators (PIs). The phase one mission duration will last up to 36 months dedicated to flight PI led research. An extended mission of up to five years is expected, with upgrades to the facility possible. Data will be downloaded and distributed to PIs within several weeks of collection. Short periods of near real-time operation will also be available if desired.
Figure 4: Installation into the EXPRESS Rack with docking with ISS Sequence Control Operation from JPL (image credit: NASA)
CAL (Cold Atom Laboratory) instrumentation
The CAL instrument utilizes COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf ) hardware and software to enable a rapid development. This ensures launch to the ISS in 2017. In Figure 5, CAL is shown in its quad lock configuration. On the left are the electronics components, which are cooled with liquid heat exchangers to maintain a safe operational temperature. On the right is the science module and laser assembly. Fiber-optic coupled lasers to simplify optic-mechanical design. Forced convection with fans is used to cool the lasers and science module. On the right is the science module, which is the heart of the CAL instrument. It is encased in a magnetic shield to attenuate the the magnetic field of the earth, which varies over the course of the orbit A more detailed image of the science module is shown in the lower figure. Note the 2D and 3D laser cooling stages, optical mounts, and structure. 14) 15)
The CAL facility is designed with a modular approach, which allows for greater reliability, as it can be maintained by the astronauts, but which also offers the possibility of upgrading its capabilities. Potential upgrades could include (but are not limited to) new laser modules, new electronic components, or a new physics package (which consists of vacuum system, atom chip and associated magnetic field control, along with the optical beam delivery apparatus. PI's would be expected to assist in the specification of potential upgrades, but the engineering effort would be funded separately.
Figure 5: Illustration of the CAL instrument (image credit: NASA/JPL)
Figure 6: Left: The CAL science module with magnetic shield and right: the CAL science module without magnetic shield (image credit: NASA/JPL)
Ballistic expansion of a cold atom cloud: In CAL's Ground Testbed, a vapor of rubidium (Rb) atoms is laser cooled, magnetically trapped, transported into an atom chip trap, and then evaporatively cooled down to nanoKelvin (nK) temperatures. These ultra cold atoms are then released and observed to fall due to gravity (in terrestrial experiments such as this one). During its fall, this thermal atom cloud expands due to its finite temperature. We image the atoms with a pair of laser beam flashes; the first flash captures a "shadow" of the atom cloud, while the second flash records a reference image. We can then process the images to get the density distribution of the cloud (in these images RED is the most dense while BLACK is zero density). The expansion rate provides a measurement of the temperature of the ultra cold Rb. The snapshots in this clip indicate the time of flight in milliseconds of the dropped cloud in the upper left. The RF (Radio Frequency) is noted in the upper right corner indicating the final value of the RF knife that we applied during forced evaporative cooling. 16)
Figure 7: CAL in Express Rack (front panels removed for clarity), image credit: NASA/JPL
Over the past three decades, much advancement has been made in Earth-based laboratories in reducing the temperature of Bose Einstein Condensate (BEC) to below the condensate temperature. Inherent to these experiments is the application of an intense magneto-optical trap to hold the atoms in place to obtain the required cooling, due to the pull of gravity. Drop tower experiments have also been performed, which is a high quality microgravity environment, but interaction times are limited to less than 1 second. Formation of BECs in space-based experiments can therefore significantly increase interaction time and reduce perturbations that come from applied fields. Specifically, longer observation time for unconfined atoms. Such a space-based laboratory could lead to exploration of unknown quantum mechanical phenomena and the understanding that comes with it. 17)
Figure 8: Condensate atom cloud imaged in the IR with decreasing temperature (image credit: NASA/JPL)
Figure 9: Transition from a particle to wave nature with decreasing temperature (image credit: NASA/JPL)
What is a Bose Einstein Condensate (BEC) ?
Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein first proposed Bose Einstein Statistics in 1924. They theorized that there are two classes of fundamental particles in the universe, Bosons, and Fermions. Fermions cannot occupy the same quantum state, and therefore follow the Pauli Exclusion Principle. However, Bosons can occupy the same quantum state and therefore can exhibit macroscopic behavior. If a population of Bosons is reduced to a temperature below their condensate temperature, a new state of matter, called a Bose Einstein Condensate (BEC), is formed. Where the population of atoms takes on a wave like nature, eventually the same wave function, and a macroscopic matter wave is observable, as shown in Figure 1. In this state, a BEC exhibits macroscopic quantum behavior. This was proposed by Bose and later created in ground based laboratory experiments by C. Tannoudji, S. Chu, W. D. Phillips, E. A. Cornell, W. G. Ketterle and C. E. Wieman. All these scientists won Nobel prizes for their discoveries and the novel techniques to obtain the BECs.
Formation of the Condensate:
The process of laser cooling is summarized in the image below. The species of interest is exposed to a photon flux tuned to a particular resonance frequency. At resonance the photons impart momentum to the atoms. If the photon frequency is Doppler red-shifted from resonance then only atoms coming towards the laser beams will be affected. Those moving away from the laser will be unaffected by the photon flux. If laser beams are such that they are coming from all directions the atoms will be cooled from all directions. This laser cooling, lowers the atom population temperature to ~100 µKelvin, still above the condensate temperature.
The next stage of cooling is evaporative cooling with an applied Radio Frequency (RF) field. Another unique property of atoms is that for atoms above a certain energy level, when exposed to an RF field, they can be excited and essentially removed from the population, leaving behind only those at a lower energy and therefore population temperature. This is called evaporative cooling and brings the temperature of the population to much below 1 µKelvin (<< 1 µK).
The final stage of cooling is adiabatic expansion. The atoms are held and compressed on an integrated circuit with a precisely tuned magnetic field. When the field is turned off the cloud expands, and cools further. The final stage brings the population to below the nK range, and in the space environment, to the pK (10-12 K) range. The condensate is formed and can live on the order of 20 seconds in microgravity where it can be exposed to other magnetic fields, electric fields, species of condensate, and imaged.
Figure 10: Laser cooling:Formation of the condensate uses a combination of laser and evaporative cooling and adiabatic expansion (image credit: NASA/JPL)
The Atom Chip:
• Compound silicon and glass substrate technology enables both magnetic and optical control of ultra-cold atoms.
• On-window wires enable simultaneous magnetic trapping and optical manipulation.
The CAL atom chip consists of lithographically patterned wires on a silicon substrate, which forms one wall of the CAL science chamber. Currents passing through these wires, in conjunction with external bias fields, allow for the formation of magnetic traps in a variety of configurations. Condensation is typically achieved in a trap in a "dimple" configuration, consisting of a wire pattern in a "z" configuration (Figure 11), with an additional waveguide superimposed on top, as shown in the figure below. Trap frequencies can be adjusted from 50-10,000 Hz, with approximately a 6:1 ratio to radial to axial frequencies. Condensates are typically formed in a tight trap about 100 µm from the atom chip. By ramping down the bias field they can be transported away from the chip's surface into a weaker trap. In Earth's gravity it is possible to move atoms up to 400 microns from the chip's surface; in microgravity this can be extended to greater than 1.0 mm. The exact configuration of the CAL atom chip has not been finalized, and PIs will have input into this design. 18)
Figure 11: "Dimple" trap wire configuration (image credit: NASA/JPL)
Table 1: Behavior of atoms at super-low temperatures (Ref. 7)
The CAL instrumentation is designed to freeze gas atoms to a mere billionth of a degree above absolute zero. That's more than 100 million times colder than the depths of space.
"Studying these hyper-cold atoms could reshape our understanding of matter and the fundamental nature of gravity," said CAL Project Scientist Robert Thompson of JPL. "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."
Figure 12: Artist's concept of a magneto-optical trap and atom chip to be used by NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) aboard the ISS (image credit: NASA/JPL, Ref. 7)
CAL will provide an opportunity to study ultra-cold quantum gases in the microgravity environment of the space station — a frontier in scientific research that is expected to reveal interesting and novel quantum phenomena.
In CAL's Ground Testbed, a vapor of rubidium (Rb) atoms is laser cooled, magnetically trapped, transported into an atom chip trap, and then evaporatively cooled down to nanoKelvin temperatures. These ultra cold atoms are then released and observed to fall due to gravity (in terrestrial experiments such as this one). During its fall this thermal atom cloud expands due to its finite temperature. We image the atoms with a pair of laser beam flashes; the first flash captures a "shadow" of the atom cloud, while the second flash records a reference image. We can then process the images to get the density distribution of the cloud (in these images RED is the most dense while BLACK is zero density). The expansion rate provides a measurement of the temperature of the ultra cold Rb. The snapshots in this clip indicate the time of flight in milliseconds of the dropped cloud in the upper left. The radio frequency (RF) is noted in the upper right corner indicating the final value of the RF knife that we applied during forced evaporative cooling. 19)
Figure 13: Ballistic expansion of a cold atom cloud, RF cooled atoms dropped (image credit: David C. Aveline, CAL Ground Testbed, JPL)
In CAL's Ground Testbed, a vapor of rubidium (Rb) atoms is evaporatively cooled in an atom chip trap utilizing a radio frequency (RF) "knife" that continuously slices away the hottest atoms. With the hottest atoms removed, the cloud can re-thermalize at a cooler temperature much like a hot cup of tea gets cooler over time as the hottest molecules evaporate. This RF knife’s frequency is smoothly ramped down from ~30 MHz down to ~1 MHz. The lower the cut with the RF frequency, the colder and more dense the atom cloud becomes, and if done efficiently it may cross the critical temperature to achieve a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC). The snapshots in this clip show the decreasing size (increasing density) and decreasing temperature of the Rb cloud when lower final RF values are applied.
Figure 14: Evaporative cooling with an RF Knife using RF stages (image credit: David C. Aveline, CAL Ground Testbed, JPL)
Status of ISS-CAL (Cold Atom Lab)
• May 18, 2022: Produced inside NASA’s Cold Atom Lab, the bubbles provide new opportunities to experiment with an exotic state of matter. 20)
- Since the days of NASA’s Apollo program, astronauts have documented (and contended with) how liquids behave differently in microgravity than they do on Earth – coalescing into floating spheres instead of bottom-heavy droplets. Now, researchers have demonstrated this effect with a much more exotic material: gas cooled to nearly absolute zero (minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 273 degrees Celsius), the lowest temperature matter can reach.
- Using NASA’s Cold Atom Lab, the first-ever quantum physics facility aboard the International Space Station, researchers took samples of atoms cooled to within a millionth of a degree above absolute zero and shaped them into extremely thin, hollow spheres. The cold gas starts out in a small, round blob, like an egg yolk, and is sculpted into something more like a thin eggshell. On Earth, similar attempts fall flat: The atoms pool downward, forming something closer in shape to a contact lens than a bubble.
Figure 15: Inside NASA’s Cold Atom Lab, scientists form bubbles from ultracold gas, shown in pink in this illustration. Lasers, also depicted, are used to cool the atoms, while an atom chip, illustrated in gray, generates magnetic fields to manipulate their shape, in combination with radio waves (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Figure 16: Ultracold clouds of atoms are manipulated into hollow spheres inside NASA’s Cold Atom Lab aboard the International Space Station. In this series of images, clouds are seen at different stages of inflation, capturing how a single cloud of atoms looks as it is manipulated into a bubble (video credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
- The ultracold bubbles could eventually be used in new kinds of experiments with an even more exotic material: a fifth state of matter (distinct from gases, liquids, solids, and plasmas) called a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). In a BEC, scientists can observe the quantum properties of atoms at a scale visible to the naked eye. For instance, atoms and particles sometimes behave like solid objects and sometimes behave like waves – a quantum property called “wave-particle duality.”
- The work requires no astronaut assistance. The ultracold bubbles are made inside Cold Atom Lab’s tightly sealed vacuum chamber using magnetic fields to gently manipulate the gas into different shapes. And the lab itself – which is about the size of a minifridge – is operated remotely from JPL.
- The largest bubbles are about 1 millimeter in diameter and 1 µm thick. They are so thin and dilute that only thousands of atoms compose them. By comparison, a cubic millimeter of air on Earth contains somewhere around a billion trillion molecules.
- “These are not like your average soap bubbles,” said David Aveline, lead author on the new work and a member of the Cold Atom Lab science team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Nothing that we know of in nature gets as cold as the atomic gases produced in Cold Atom Lab. So we start with this very unique gas and study how it behaves when shaped into fundamentally different geometries. And, historically, when a material is manipulated in this way, very interesting physics can emerge, as well as new applications.”
Why It ‘Matters’
- Exposing materials to different physical conditions is central to understanding them. It’s also often the first step to finding practical applications for those materials.
- Conducting these types of experiments on the space station using the Cold Atom Lab enables scientists to remove the effects of gravity, which is often the dominant force impacting the motion and behavior of fluids. By doing so, scientists can better understand the other factors at play, such as a liquid’s surface tension or viscosity.
- Now that scientists have created the ultracold bubbles, their next step will be to transition the ultracold gas composing the bubbles to the BEC state and see how it behaves.
- “Some theoretical work suggests that if we work with one of these bubbles that is in the BEC state, we might be able to form vortices – basically, little whirlpools – in the quantum material,” said Nathan Lundblad, a professor of physics at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and the principal investigator of the new study. “That’s one example of a physical configuration that could help us understand BEC properties better and gain more insight into the nature of quantum matter.”
- The field of quantum science has led to the development of modern technologies such as transistors and lasers. Quantum investigations done in Earth orbit could lead to improvements in spacecraft navigation systems and sensors for studying Earth and other solar system bodies. Ultracold atom facilities have been in operation on Earth for decades; however, in space, researchers can study ultracold atoms and BECs in new ways because the effects of gravity are reduced. This enables researchers to regularly reach colder temperatures and observe phenomena longer than they can on Earth.
- “Our primary goal with Cold Atom Lab is fundamental research – we want to use the unique space environment of the space station to explore the quantum nature of matter,” said Jason Williams, project scientist for Cold Atom Lab at JPL. “Studying ultracold atoms in new geometries is a perfect example of that.”
More About the Mission
- Designed and built at JPL, Cold Atom Lab is sponsored by the Biological and Physical Sciences (BPS) Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. BPS pioneers scientific discovery and enables exploration by using space environments to conduct investigations not possible on Earth. Studying biological and physical phenomena under extreme conditions allows researchers to advance the fundamental scientific knowledge required to go farther and stay longer in space, while also benefitting life on Earth.
• October 26, 2021: NASA’s Cold Atom Lab is a first-of-its-kind physics laboratory operating in Earth orbit. About the size of a mini-fridge, it hosts multiple experiments that explore the fundamental nature of atoms by cooling them down to nearly absolute zero (the coldest temperature matter can reach). The ultracold atoms provide a window into the quantum realm, where matter exhibits strange behaviors that underpin many modern technologies. 22)
Figure 17: NASA’s Cold Atom Lab – a quantum physics facility aboard the International Space Station – hosts multiple experiments that explore the fundamental nature of atoms by cooling them down to nearly absolute zero (the coldest temperature matter can reach). Earlier this year, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur tested the use of a mixed reality headset (a Microsoft HoloLens) to help keep the experiment at the cutting edge (video credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
- In 2020, during her extended stay aboard the space station, NASA astronaut Christina Koch worked with Earth-based mission team members to install upgraded hardware in Cold Atom Lab. Along with adding new capabilities to the novel facility, the effort proved something else: that such maintenance could be performed without the need to lug the laboratory back to Earth.
- Plans are underway for a series of additional upgrades to Cold Atom Lab in the coming years, so the mission team is investigating ways to make these activities more efficient. Earlier this summer, they successfully tested a new tool that could help with that goal: a Microsoft HoloLens, a mixed reality (also known as augmented reality, or AR) headset. On July 15, astronaut Megan McArthur used the AR headset while she replaced a piece of hardware inside Cold Atom Lab, enabling the facility to produce ultracold potassium atoms in addition to the rubidium atoms that have been used since the facility started operating in 2018.
Figure 18: NASA Astronaut Megan McArthur dons a Microsoft HoloLens, a mixed reality (or augmented reality) headset, which allows her to see both the space around her as well as digital displays in her field of view (image credit: NASA)
- Mixed reality headsets such as the HoloLens look like wraparound sunglasses, and unlike virtual reality headsets (which produce an entirely virtual setting), the HoloLens has transparent lenses that blend the virtual and real worlds together. This allowed McArthur to see the area around her, and a small forward-facing camera on the headset allowed members of the Cold Atom Lab team, watching on large screens in the Earth Orbiting Missions Operations Center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, to see whatever she was looking at. By contrast, during the 2020 activity with Christina Koch, the team could see a live video feed only from a fixed camera positioned behind or above the astronaut, leaving their view of the hardware mostly obscured.
- McArthur could also see virtual graphic annotations, such as text and arrows, placed in her field of view by the Cold Atom Lab operations team. For example, as she looked at a series of cables, the mission team could place an arrow in her field of vision, pointing to the specific cable she needed to unplug. Even if she were to move her head away and back again, the arrow would remain pointing at the same cable location.
- Virtual reality headsets have been used for various applications aboard the space station, and mixed reality has been used in a few cases. But usually, the goal of these activities is to make it easier for an astronaut to perform a task alone. The Cold Atom Lab hardware replacement activity marked the first use of a mixed reality headset to improve the live interaction between an astronaut and engineers on Earth; it also marked the first use of mixed reality to repair a science experiment on the station. Preparation for the activity took six months, with collaboration between NASA’s JPL, Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
- “Cold Atom Lab is investing in the use of this technology on the space station not just because it’s intriguing, but because it could provide additional capabilities for these complex tasks that we rely on astronauts to perform,” said Kamal Oudrhiri, Cold Atom Lab’s project manager at JPL. “This activity was a perfect demonstration of how Cold Atom Lab and quantum science can take advantage of mixed reality technology.”
- Quantum science has revealed many non-intuitive features of the physical world, such as the fact that atoms behave like both solid objects and waves. Some of these discoveries led to the development of technologies that many of us use everyday, such as transistors and microchips.
- Cold Atom Lab is the first quantum science facility in Earth orbit. Cooling the atoms causes them to move more slowly, making them easier to study. And ultracold atoms can also form a fifth state of matter, called a Bose-Einstein condensate, which displays typically microscopic quantum features at a macroscopic scale.
- In the microgravity environment, scientists can make atoms colder and study them for longer than on Earth. This opens up avenues of research that aren’t accessible on the ground. By making Cold Atom Lab upgradable, team members can add new tools and capabilities as their research progresses, so they can seek answers to new questions and conduct increasingly complex and impactful experiments.
- “This repair activity allows potassium gases to also be studied in Cold Atom Lab, which will enable scientists to perform dozens of new experiments in quantum chemistry and fundamental physics using multi-species gases where the atoms interact with each other in interesting ways at the ultra-low temperatures only achievable in microgravity,” said Jason Williams, Cold Atom Lab’s project scientist. “Our goal is for Cold Atom Lab to become an evolving science facility so we can quickly build on our research and work with the astronauts to add new hardware capabilities without the need to build and launch new facilities each step of the way.”
- A hardware upgrade on a facility like Cold Atom Lab would normally be done only by someone intimately familiar with the hardware, since a misstep during the process could impact Cold Atom Lab’s ability to operate. McArthur had to work around delicate, tightly packed interior components, including more than a dozen electronics cards, a maze of wires and cables, and an orchestra of finely tuned lasers used to cool atoms down to nearly absolute zero inside a sealed vacuum chamber while infrared cameras observe them.
- Future upgrades to Cold Atom Lab will also involve real-time interactions between astronauts on the station and team members on the ground. That’s why this trial use of mixed reality was so inspiring to the team.
- “A task like this needs a lot of real-time guidance with an expert on the ground, and that’s where the HoloLens could be very useful,” said Jim Kellogg, launch vehicle and space station integration lead for Cold Atom Lab at JPL, which manages the mission.
• November 20, 2020: A mission of the American Space Agency (NASA) led by the Moroccan Kamal Oudrhiri was awarded a prestigious prize in the cutting-edge field of space science and technology. The AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) has thus awarded its most coveted prize in the field of space sciences to the “Cold Atom Lab” mission led by the Moroccan scientist. The Cold Atom Lab team received the 2020 AIAA Space Science Award for “developing and delivering the highly innovative Cold Atom Laboratory to the International Space Agency as well as for its fundamental scientific achievements,” Oudrhiri said. 23) 24)
- Project and Mission Leader Kamal Oudrhiri congratulated all those who helped design, build, and successfully operate this very first quantum physics laboratory in space. “The Cold Atom Lab project depends on the work of an entire team and the commitment to excellence of all those involved in this high-tech lab with the goal of fostering great science that expands our understanding of the earth and the universe around us,” he added.
- The Cold Atom Lab has been operating from its perch on the International Space Station since July 2018. It cools atoms to near absolute zero, minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit, colder than any other known location in the natural universe. “The experiments carried out at these extreme temperatures help us understand how our world works at the smallest scale “, specifies the Moroccan scientist.
- The new distinction comes in addition to several awards, including the prestigious Medal for Outstanding Service, in recognition of the sustained performance and multiple contributions of this scientist to NASA projects and programs.
Figure 19: Cold Atom Laboratory Team is being presented with the 2020 AIAA Space Science Award for “developing and delivering the highly innovative Cold Atom Laboratory to the ISS and for seminal scientific achievements.” This award will be accepted by Robert J. Thompson, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Eric Cornell, University of Colorado (image credit: NASA/JPL)
Figure 20: Photo of Kamal Oudrhiri at JPL (image credit: NASA)
• June 12, 2020: This month marks 25 years since scientists first produced a fifth state of matter, which has extraordinary properties totally unlike solids, liquids, gases and plasmas. The achievement garnered a Nobel Prize and changed physics. 25)
- A new study in the journal Nature builds on that legacy. In July 2018, NASA's Cold Atom Lab became the first facility to produce that fifth state of matter, called a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), in Earth orbit. A fundamental physics facility on the International Space Station, Cold Atom Lab cools atoms down to ultracold temperatures in order to study their basic physical properties in ways that would not be possible on Earth. Now, the mission team reports on the details of getting this unique lab up and running, as well as their progress toward a long-term goal of using microgravity to illuminate new features of the quantum world.
- Whether you know it or not, quantum science touches our lives each day. Quantum mechanics refers to the branch of physics that focuses on the behaviors of atoms and subatomic particles, and it is a foundational part of many components in many modern technologies, including cell phones and computers, that employ the wave nature of electrons in silicon.
- Although the first quantum phenomena were observed more than a century ago, scientists are still learning about this realm of our universe.
- "Even dating back to when the first Bose-Einstein condensates were made, physicists recognized how working in space could provide big advantages in studying these quantum systems," said David Aveline, a member of the Cold Atom Lab science team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "There have been some focused demonstrations in this regard, but now with the continuous operation of Cold Atom Lab, we're showing there's a lot to gain by doing these prolonged experiments day after day in orbit."
Figure 21: How do you cool atoms down to almost absolute zero, or the temperature at which atoms should stop moving entirely? Members of NASA's Cold Atom Lab team explain (video credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Colder Than Cold
- The colder atoms are, the slower they move and the easier they are to study. Ultracold atom facilities like Cold Atom Lab cool atoms down to within a fraction of a degree above absolute zero, or the temperature at which they would theoretically stop moving entirely.
- Chilling atoms is also the only way to produce a Bose-Einstein condensate. Scientists produce BEC's in a vacuum, so on Earth the atoms are pulled down by gravity and fall quickly to the floor of the chamber, typically limiting observation times to less than a second. With the weightlessness of the space station, BEC's can float, not unlike the astronauts on board. Inside Cold Atom Lab, that means longer observing times.
- Unlike solids, liquids, gases and plasmas, BEC's don't form naturally. They serve as a valuable tool for quantum physicists because all the atoms in a BEC have the same quantum identity, so they collectively exhibit properties that are typically displayed only by individual atoms or subatomic particles. Thus, BEC's make those microscopic characteristics visible at a macroscopic scale.
- Previous ultracold atom experiments have used sounding rockets or dropped their specially designed hardware from the top of tall towers to create seconds or minutes of weightlessness the same way a zero gravity airplane does. From its perch on the station, Cold Atom Lab has provided its scientists thousands of hours of microgravity experiment time. This allows them to repeat their experiments multiple times and to exercise more creativity and flexibility in the experiments they conduct.
- "With Cold Atom Lab, scientists can see their data in real time and make adjustments to their experiments on short notice," said Jason Williams, a member of the Cold Atom Lab science team at JPL. "That flexibility means we're able to learn quickly and address new questions as they arise."
- Ultracold atom facilities in space should also be able to reach colder temperatures than Earth-bound laboratories. One way to do that is to simply make the ultracold atom clouds slowly expand, which causes them to get cooler and is easier to do without gravity pulling atoms to the ground.
- Longer observing times and colder temperatures both provide opportunities for deeper insights into the behaviors of atoms and BEC's. On Earth, the coldest temperatures and longest observing times have been achieved only by experiments with entire rooms full of dedicated hardware or tall towers. The dishwasher-sized Cold Atom Lab hasn't yet set new records in those categories, but its basic capabilities are cutting edge, bundling the abilities of an extremely large lab into a small package.
- "I really think we've just begun to scratch the surface of what can be done with ultracold atom experiments in microgravity," said Ethan Elliott, a member of the Cold Atom Lab science team at JPL. "I'm really excited to see what the fundamental physics community does with this capability in the long term."
- Cold Atom Lab has now run successfully for two years, and astronauts recently helped upgrade the facility with a new tool called an atom interferometer that uses atoms to precisely measure forces, including gravity. The team recently confirmed that the new instrument is working as expected, making it the first atom interferometer to operate in space.
- The new study in Nature was led by Aveline, Williams and Elliott. 26) Designed and built at JPL, Cold Atom Lab is sponsored by the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA) division of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington and the International Space Station Program at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
• May 12, 2020: NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory, a facility for fundamental physics experiments on the International Space Station, recently underwent a major hardware upgrade with the help of astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir. By chilling atom clouds to just above absolute zero - the lowest temperature matter can reach - Cold Atom Lab enables scientists to directly observe unique atomic behaviors, helping answer questions about how our world works at the smallest scales. The new hardware will dramatically expand Cold Atom Lab's capabilities. 27)
- Installing the upgrade in space was something of an experiment as well. On Earth, that task would fall to engineers with years of experience handling the components. To avoid bringing the facility back down from the space station - a costly and time-consuming step - the mission team guided Koch and Meir through the installation via live video conference from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
- "With this upgrade, we were effectively replacing the heart of Cold Atom Lab, and everything had to go perfectly," said Kamal Oudrhiri, project manager for Cold Atom Lab at JPL. "Astronauts are extremely smart, capable people, but we felt like heart surgeons trying to show a general practitioner how to do surgery for the first time. We did everything we could to ensure success, but truthfully I was very nervous."
Figure 22: Astronaut Christina Koch assists with a hardware upgrade for NASA's Cold Atom Lab aboard the International Space Station in January 2020 (image credit: NASA-International Space Station)
Figure 23: In January 2020, members of the Cold Atom Lab operations team worked with astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir on a hardware upgrade to Cold Atom Lab while the facility was still aboard the International Space Station (video credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech, NASA-International Space Station)
Why So Cold?
- Physicists use ultracold atom facilities on Earth for a variety of experiments that probe the fundamental behaviors of atoms. Chilling atoms to within one ten billionth of a degree above 0 Kelvin (minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 273.15 degrees Celsius) causes them to slow down significantly, making them easier to study. At those temperatures, some atoms can also form a fifth state of matter, called a Bose-Einstein condensate that does not exist in nature. Bose-Einstein condensates provide a unique window into the strange world of quantum mechanics, which governs the universe at very small scales.
- Cold Atom Lab is the first ultracold atom facility in Earth orbit. In the weightless environment of space, atoms aren't pulled down by gravity, so they exist in their unbound, ultracool state for long periods of time. This characteristic enables scientists to observe their natural behaviors in a way that is not possible on Earth.
- Five science groups have been conducting experiments with Cold Atom Lab since it began operating in the summer of 2018, and they're eager to begin working with the upgraded hardware, including a new instrument called an atom interferometer. In space, atom interferometry could have multiple applications, including making exquisitely subtle measurements of gravity that are useful for fundamental physics research, planetary science and other fields.
- For example, atom interferometry could be used to measure changes in gravity across a planet's surface to learn about its composition and subsurface features. The tool could also be used to test Albert Einstein's fundamental theory of gravity to an unprecedented degree. The Cold Atom Lab team recently confirmed that the atom interferometer is working as expected, making it the first instrument of its kind to operate in space.
- "With Cold Atom Lab we're looking for new physics that pops up only when you can study the universe at extremely fine scales," said Jason Williams, the lead scientist for the Cold Atom Lab atom interferometer at JPL.
No Second Chance
- Cold Atom Lab consists of two metal boxes, the larger of which is called the Science Instrument and weighs over 400 pounds (180 kilograms). Inside is a compartment called the Science Module, which is where the atoms are cooled and the science takes place.
- To complete the upgrade, Koch and Meir would have to gently maneuver the sizeable Science Instrument out of its operating location on the space station, remove the old Science Module and replace it with the new one.
- Months before the installation, members of the Cold Atom Lab team worked with the Payload Operation and Integration Center at NASA's Marshal Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to create instructions for Koch and Meir. They divided the installation into six sessions over eight days, including practice for Koch. Crew time on the station is extremely valuable, so the mission team spent weeks practicing the steps on Earth to optimize the procedure.
- "There are so many details that it's difficult to even explain," said Jim Kellogg, launch vehicle and space station integration lead for Cold Atom Lab at JPL. "We had to consider details such as what tools will the crew need? If we need to borrow a tool from another group on the space station, how do we do that? Where is everything going to be temporarily stowed while the astronauts are working on our instrument? Every detail needs to be documented and signed off, and the people at Marshall Space Flight Center supported us through every step of the way."
- To reinstall the Science Instrument, Koch, working alone, would have to inspect and connect 11 precision fiber optic cables. The glass fiber cores of the cables are about one-twentieth the diameter of a human hair, and if any were broken, contaminated or scratched, it could potentially result in mission-ending failures.
- "She was absolutely fantastic," Kellogg said of Koch. "Every time I was about to remind her of something or give her a heads-up about what was coming, she would already be on top of it. She was so attentive to every detail in our procedures and to the guidance I was giving her. She was amazing in every way."
- Koch was equally enthusiastic about the experience. "It took me over 300 days [since arriving on the space station] to get to work on Cold Atom Lab, but it was worth it," she said on the first day of the activity.
- And how did the installation turn out? So far, it looks like a complete success.
- "This was an extremely difficult endeavor that required a dedicated team on the ground and two committed astronauts, Christina and Jessica," said Oudrhiri. "If this installation hadn't gone well, there would have been no second chance. We'd have to bring the entire flight instrument back to Earth, and that could have set us back at least two years."
- Once testing and analysis of the new hardware are complete in the coming weeks, the team expects the science groups that use the Cold Atom Lab to begin taking data again.
- Building an ultracold atom facility that could withstand the trip to space, operate with little to no astronaut assistance, and even be upgraded in orbit took the Cold Atom Lab team years. Now they hope their work has kicked off an era in which quantum science is done regularly in orbit.
- Designed and built at JPL, Cold Atom Lab is sponsored by the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA) division of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington and the International Space Station Program at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
• December 17, 2019: Astronaut Christina Koch recently gave a warm welcome to a very cool arrival to the International Space Station: a new piece of hardware for the CAL (Cold Atom Lab), an experimental physics facility that chills atoms to almost absolute zero, or minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 273 degrees Celsius). That's colder than any known place in the universe. 28)
- The Cold Atom Lab has been up and running in the space station's science module since July 2018 and is operated remotely from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Five groups of scientists on Earth are using the Cold Atom Lab to conduct a variety of experiments to help answer questions about how our world works at the smallest scales.
- The new hardware includes an instrument called an atom interferometer that will allow scientists to make subtle measurements of gravity and probe fundamental theories of gravity. Further development of this technology in space could lead to improved inertial-force sensors, which could be used to design tools for enhanced spacecraft navigation, to probe the composition and topology of planets and other celestial bodies, and to study Earth's climate.
- Chilling atoms to such low temperatures slows them down significantly, enabling scientists to study them more easily. (Room-temperature atoms move faster than the speed of sound, while ultracold atoms move slower than a garden snail.) Ultracold atom physics has led to breakthroughs such as the discovery of superfluidity and superconductivity, as well as the production of a fifth state of matter, called a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC). First predicted in the 1920s, BECs allow scientists to observe quantum behaviors of atoms on a macroscopic scale.
- Physicists have been using ultracold atom facilities in Earth-bound labs for more than 20 years. But CAL is the first such facility in Earth orbit, where the microgravity environment provides scientists longer observing times for individual bunches of atoms and may allow for colder temperatures than what can be achieved on the ground.
Figure 24: Astronaut Christina Koch unloads new hardware for the Cold Atom Lab aboard the International Space Station the week of Dec. 9, 2020(image credit: NASA)
- Ultracold atoms also provide a window into quantum mechanics, where particles can behave in strange ways, such as spontaneously passing through physical barriers or communicating instantaneously over long distances. The study of quantum mechanics has led to the development of such ubiquitous technologies as lasers, semiconductors and transistors. By making the leap into Earth orbit, the Cold Atom Lab may open the door for the development of quantum technologies in space.
- About the size of a mini refrigerator, the Cold Atom Lab will be equipped with the newly arrived hardware in 2020. Designed and built at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the Cold Atom Lab was is sponsored by the International Space Station Program at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA) Division of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
• December 20, 2018: ISS-CAL is the first facility in orbit to produce clouds of "ultracold" atoms, which can reach a fraction of a degree above absolute zero: -459ºF (-273ºC), the absolute coldest temperature that matter can reach. Nothing in nature is known to hit the temperatures achieved in laboratories like CAL, which means the orbiting facility is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe. 29)
Figure 25: NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory on the ISS is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe. But why are scientists producing clouds of atoms a fraction of a degree above absolute zero? And why do they need to do it in space? Quantum physics, of course (video credit: NASA/JPL)
- 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.
- Why cool atoms to such an extreme low? Room-temperature atoms typically zip around like hyperactive humming birds, but ultracold atoms move much slower than even a snail. Specifics vary, but ultracold atoms can be more than 200,000 times slower than room-temperature atoms. This opens up new ways to study atoms as well as new ways to use them for investigations of other physical phenomena. CAL's primary science objective is to conduct fundamental physics research - to try to understand the workings of nature at the most fundamental levels.
- "With CAL we're starting to get a really thorough understanding of how the atoms behave in microgravity, how to manipulate them, how the system is different than the ones we use on Earth," said Rob Thompson, a cold atom physicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the mission scientist for CAL. "This is all knowledge that is going to build a foundation for what I hope is a long future of cold atom science in space."
- Laboratories on Earth can produce ultracold atoms, but on the ground, gravity pulls on the chilled atom clouds and they fall quickly, giving scientists only fractions of a second to observe them. Magnetic fields can be used to "trap" the atoms and hold them still, but that restricts their natural movement. In microgravity, the cold atom clouds float for much longer, giving scientists an extended view of their behavior.
- 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.
- Ultracold atom facilities on Earth typically occupy an entire room, and in most, the hardware is left exposed so that scientists can adjust the apparatus if need be. Building a cold atom laboratory for space posed several design challenges, some of which change the fundamental nature of these facilities. First, there was the matter of size: CAL flew to the station in two pieces - a metal box a little larger than a minifridge and a second one about the size of a carry-on suitcase. Second, CAL was designed to be operated remotely from Earth, so it was built as a fully enclosed facility.
- CAL also features a number of technologies that have never been flown in space before, such as specialized vacuum cells that contain the atoms, which have to be sealed so tightly that almost no stray atoms can leak in. The lab needed to be able to withstand the shaking of launch and extreme forces experienced during the flight to the space station. It took the teams several years to develop unique hardware that could meet the precise needs for cooling atoms in space.
- "Several parts of the system required redesigning, and some parts broke in ways we'd never seen before," said Robert Shotwell, chief engineer for JPL's Astronomy, Physics and Space Technology Directorate and CAL project manager. "The facility had to be completely torn apart and reassembled three times."
- All the hard work and problem solving since the mission's inception in 2012 turned the CAL team's vision into reality this past May. CAL team members talked via live video with astronauts Ricky Arnold and Drew Feustel aboard the International Space Station for the installation of the Cold Atom Laboratory, the second ultracold atom facility ever operated in space, the first to reach Earth orbit and the first to remain in space for more than a few minutes. Along the way, CAL has also met the minimum requirements NASA set to deem the mission a success and is providing a unique tool for probing nature's mysteries.
- Designed and built at JPL, CAL is sponsored by the International Space Station Program at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA) Division of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
• July 27, 2018: NASA's ISS-CAL instrument was installed in the station's U.S. science lab in late May and is now producing clouds of ultracold atoms known as BECs (Bose-Einstein Condensates). These BECs reach temperatures just above absolute zero, the point at which atoms should theoretically stop moving entirely. This is the first time BECs have ever been produced in orbit. 30)
- CAL is a multiuser facility dedicated to the study of fundamental laws of nature using ultracold quantum gases in microgravity. Cold atoms are long-lived, precisely controlled quantum particles that provide an ideal platform for the study of quantum phenomena and potential applications of quantum technologies. This NASA facility is the first of its kind in space. It is designed to advance scientists' ability to make precision measurements of gravity, probing long-standing problems in quantum physics (the study of the universe at the very smallest scales), and exploring the wavelike nature of matter.
- "Having a BEC experiment operating on the space station is a dream come true," said Robert Thompson, CAL project scientist and a physicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "It's been a long, hard road to get here, but completely worth the struggle, because there's so much we're going to be able to do with this facility."
- CAL scientists confirmed last week that the facility has produced BECs from atoms of rubidium, with temperatures as low as 100 nanoKelvin, or one ten-millionth of one Kelvin above absolute zero. (Absolute zero, or zero Kelvin, is equal to minus 273 degrees Celsius). That's colder than the average temperature of space, which is about 3 Kelvin (minus 270 degrees Celsius). But the CAL scientists have their sights set even lower, and expect to reach temperatures colder than what any BEC experiments have achieved on Earth.
- At these ultracold temperatures, the atoms in a BEC begin to behave unlike anything else on Earth. In fact, BECs are characterized as a fifth state of matter, distinct from gases, liquids, solids and plasma. In a BEC, atoms act more like waves than particles. The wave nature of atoms is typically only observable at microscopic scales, but BECs make this phenomenon macroscopic, and thus much easier to study. The ultracold atoms all assume their lowest energy state, and take on the same wave identity, becoming indistinguishable from one another. Together, the atom clouds are like a single "super atom," instead of individual atoms.
Figure 26: This graph shows the changing density of a cloud of atoms as it is cooled to lower and lower temperatures (going from left to right) approaching absolute zero. The emergence of a sharp peak in the later graphs confirms the formation of a Bose-Einstein condensate — a fifth state of matter — occurring here at a temperature of 130 nanoKelvin, or less than 1 Kelvin above absolute zero (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Figure 27: JPL scientists and members of the Cold Atom Lab's atomic physics team (left to right) David Aveline, Ethan Elliott and Jason Williams, shown here in the Earth Orbiting Missions Operation Center at JPL, where Cold Atom Lab (CAL) is remotely controlled and tuned. Displayed on the screen behind them is an image of CAL on the International Space Station. Aveline, Elliott and Williams were instrumental in producing the first ever Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) in orbit with CAL (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
• June 1, 2018: The crew installed and configured the CAL (Cold Atom Laboratory) and began operation of a six-week checkout. Ultimately, results of this research could improve a number of different technologies, including sensors, quantum computers and atomic clocks used in spacecraft navigation. 31)
Figure 28: CAL uses lasers and magnetic traps to slow down atoms until they are almost motionless, creating clouds of atoms ten billion times colder than deep space. In microgravity, scientists can observe these ultra-cold atoms for much longer than possible on the ground, which could help answer some big questions in modern physics (image credit: NASA)
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The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (email@example.com).
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