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New instrument on ISS to study ultra-cold quantum gases

The Cold Atom Laboratory, or CAL, is slated to be installed aboard the ISS in late 2017 to study quantum phenomena.

Members of the Cold Atom Laboratory team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are seen here with their ground-based testbed, which can reliably create a Bose–Einstein condensate. Pictured from left to right, Anita Sengupta, Ethan Elliott, Rob Thompson, and Markus Krutzik. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A new science instrument, slated to be installed on board the International Space Station (ISS) in late 2017, is expected to yield interesting results regarding quantum phenomena. The Cold Atom Laboratory, or CAL, will study degenerate quantum gases in the microgravity environment of the orbital outpost.

Artist's rendition of an atom chip for use by NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) aboard the International Space Station.

Artist’s rendition of an atom chip. Image Credit: NASA

The compact, atom-chip based instrument will be capable of trapping such elements like rubidium and potassium, as well as producing degenerate gases of each species, after a few seconds of collection and cooling. It will allow the scientists to create a state of matter called a Bose–Einstein Condensate (BEC). This state can be achieved by cooling a gas of extremely low density, about one-hundred-thousandth the density of normal air, to ultra-low temperatures – lower than those that are created in laboratories on Earth.

“CAL is a multi-user facility to study ultra-cold atoms – below a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. Microgravity allows scientists to observe cold atoms floating unconfined for long periods of time allowing highly precise measurements of very weak forces,” Rob Thompson, CAL project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), told

CAL is currently scheduled to be launched to the ISS by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in June 2017. However, due to a recent launch pad explosion on Sept. 1, when both the Falcon 9 and the Amos-6 satellite were destroyed two days prior to scheduled liftoff, CAL’s flight into space could be delayed. Moreover, it is also being considered that the instrument could be launched by Orbital ATK instead of SpaceX.

The Cold Atom Laboratory, or CAL, is slated to be installed aboard the ISS in late 2017 to study quantum phenomena.

CAL instruments. (Click to enlarge) Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After the arrival of CAL at the ISS, it will be installed by astronauts into the EXpedite the PRocessing of Experiments to the Space Station (EXPRESS) rack inside the station’s Destiny module, which will provide standardized power, data, thermal, and mechanical interface to the new facility. Due to its size and power requirements, CAL will occupy a quad locker space in the rack.

“CAL will be installed into the ISS EXPRESS locker, where it takes up the equivalent of five lockers – a quad locker and a separate locker. Mass is around 452 pounds (205 kilograms) for the quad locker and 137 pounds (62 kilograms) for the single one,” Thompson said.

Once installed, the instrument will be operated remotely from the ground via sequence control, so there will be no need for further astronaut involvement.

The main goal of CAL is to study ultra-cold quantum gases in the microgravity environment. The instrument will investigate rubidium and potassium isotopes, as well as interactions between mixtures of these isotopes. The facility is designed for use by multiple scientific investigators and to be upgradable and also maintainable on orbit. CAL is also perceived as a pathfinder experiment for future quantum sensors based on laser-cooled atoms.

“CAL will be making several exciting Principal-Investigator-Led (PI-led) specific investigations, in such areas as tests of general relativity, the physics of few-body collisions, and studies of novel spherical quantum bubble geometry condensates,” Thompson said.

“In addition, CAL will serve as a pathfinder for future experiments with cold atoms, which have great promise for both practical and research applications, such as tests of fundamental physics, searches for gravitational waves, better atomic clocks, space navigation, and monitoring effects of climate change,” he added.

CAL’s initial mission is expected to last one year, with a possible extension for further five years. Upgrades to the facility are also being considered. Additional features could include new laser modules, new electronic components, or a new physics package.

Video Courtesy of Science At NASA



Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

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