The Skinny On CAL: Here’s What You Need To Know About The Cold Atom Lab That NASA Just Launched Into Space

Watch the inner workings of the CAL experiment, which will turn the ISS into the coldest place in the known universe.

The Cold Atom Lab physics research facility developed by JPL and shipped off by NASA to the ISS.
iGoal Animation / NASA

Watch the inner workings of the CAL experiment, which will turn the ISS into the coldest place in the known universe.

NASA is gearing up for a new bold experiment that could end up answering some of the biggest questions in modern physics. Known as the Cold Atom Laboratory, CAL for short, this strange and novel apparatus is currently headed toward the International Space Station (ISS), where it will use lasers and magnets to create the coldest spot in the known universe.

As the Inquisitr reported last week, CAL is just one of a number of extravagant science experiments that NASA just sent to the Expedition 55 crew on board the ISS. This precious cargo is being ferried by Orbital ATK’s Cygnus resupply vehicle, which blasted off earlier today from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

According to NASA, the Cygnus spacecraft is expected to reach the ISS on May 24 and will deliver CAL into the competent hands of the astronauts on board the space station, enabling them to start the ultra-cold atom research that the mobile lab is intended for.

CAL is a bona-fide physics research facility. Developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, the Cold Atom Lab acts like an atomic fridge that uses lasers and magnets to chill clouds of diffused gas to ultracold temperatures and slow down their atoms so that they can be studied in zero-g.

To pull this off, CAL first needs to create a cold spot within the facility where temperatures drop close to absolute zero, or the lowest temperature possible.

During the experiment, described in the video below, the Cold Atomic Lab will create a temperature 10 billion times colder than the vacuum of space, rendering the ISS the coldest spot in the universe.

When temperatures inside CAL get close to absolute zero — which is equivalent to minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit or minus 273.15 degrees Celsius, notes — the chilled atom clouds become Bose-Einstein condensates, a group of atoms that are so cold that they turn almost motionless and clump together into a structure that acts as a single atom.

As NASA explains in the experiment’s description, CAL is designed for the study of ultra-cold quantum gases and will be used by the Expedition 55 crew “to explore how atoms interact when they have almost no motion due to such cold temperatures.”

Because these chilled atoms become identical and have the same physical properties, as LiveScience reveals, CAL offers the perfect opportunity to examine their quantum characteristics.

The experiment “makes use of the space station’s unique microgravity environment to observe quantum phenomena that would otherwise be undetectable from Earth,” NASA wrote in CAL’s description.

This will allow the astronauts to study Bose-Einstein condensates for a longer period of time than scientists back home would be able to do.

“Studying these hyper-cold atoms could reshape our understanding of matter and the fundamental nature of gravity,” Robert Thompson, CAL project scientist at JPL, said a statement earlier this year.

“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,” Thompson pointed out.

The research that CAL will be conducting in space could help scientists advance a number of technologies. The results of the Cold Atom Lab experiments could be used to improve “sensors, quantum computers, and atomic clocks used in spacecraft navigation,” NASA stated in a news release issued after the Cygnus launch.