NASA Recreates Coldest Spot in Known Universe
With the winter the continental United States has been having, we might think that we live in one of the coldest spots in the universe. But compared to areas in space, especially the vast gulf between stars and galaxies, our winter does not even compare to these frigid temperatures, as scientists report this is the coldest area in the known universe. So just how cold does it get?
The temperature of gaseous matter routinely drops to 3 degrees K, or 454 degrees below zero Fahrenheit!
And in a new study, NASA researchers are planning to create the coldest spot in the known universe inside the International Space Station.
"We're going to study matter at temperatures far colder than are found naturally," says Rob Thompson of JPL. He's the Project Scientist for NASA's Cold Atom Lab, an atomic 'refrigerator' slated for launch to the ISS in 2016. "We aim to push effective temperatures down to 100 pico-Kelvin."
100 pico-Kelvin is just one ten billionth of a degree above absolute zero, where all the thermal activity of atoms theoretically stops. At such low temperatures, ordinary concepts of solid, liquid and gas are no longer relevant. Atoms interacting just above the threshold of zero energy create new forms of matter that are essentially ... quantum.
Quantum mechanics is a branch of physics that describes the bizarre rules of light and matter on atomic scales. In that realm, matter can be in two places at once; objects behave as both particles and waves; and nothing is certain: the quantum world runs on probability.
It is into this strange realm that researchers using the Cold Atom Lab will plunge.
In 1995, researchers discovered that if you took a few million rubidium atoms and cooled them near absolute zero, they would merge into a single wave of matter. The trick worked with sodium, too. In 2001, Eric Cornell of the National Institute of Standards & Technology and Carl Wieman of University of Colorado shared the Nobel Prize with Wolfgang Ketterle of MIT for their independent discovery of these condensates, which Albert Einstein and Satyendra Bose had predicted in the early 20th century.
If you create two BECs and put them together, they don't mix like an ordinary gas. Instead, they can "interfere" like waves: thin, parallel layers of matter are separated by thin layers of empty space. An atom in one BEC can add itself to an atom in another BEC and produce — no atom at all.
"The Cold Atom Lab will allow us to study these objects at perhaps the lowest temperatures ever," says Thompson.
Continue reading at Research.gov.
Galaxy image via Shutterstock.