For those of us who are cursing a groundhog for the latest patch of white stuff on the ground and the cold temperatures that have kept us indoors for weeks on end, we need to stop complaining: things are about to get much, much colder on the International Space Station. The ISS will be receiving new equipment to create a lab that will be colder than any other place, and not just any other place on Earth, or in space, but in the whole known Universe.
The Cold Atom Lab, due to arrive at the ISS in 2016, will be an environment that can be kept stable at something very, very close to absolute zero. When things get that cold, weird stuff starts to happen, stuff that follows quantum rules, as opposed to the rules of classical physics. However, as we’ve never experienced anything that cold before, anything could happen, which is what NASA is counting on. The idea is to study Bose-Einstein condensates, which is what you get when a gas gets cooled down to such low temperatures that it enters a quantum state and behaves sort of like one giant atom, making quantum effects visible on a macroscopic scale in the process. However, since this will be a first for this type of experiment, who knows what else we’ll discover in the process?
The ISS offers a perfect location for a super cold experiment, due to its low gravity. The experiment involves magnetic traps, which will expand the gas that forms the condensate. On Earth, the magnetic traps would respond to gravity, making it more difficult to cool down (and requiring more power to do so). On the ISS, though, there is no such pull, so getting to those low temperatures is a lot easier. It also doesn't hurt that it's already pretty cold out there in space.
So what does it all mean? Well, it means that for the first time, we might actually see real evidence of quantum physics at work: things we have only theorized about. We might learn a few new things in the process. Whatever we do discover from The Cold Atom lab, it will certainly affect our understanding of what makes our Universe tick.