New ISS instrument to enhance knowledge on quantum phenomena

New ISS instrument to enhance knowledge on quantum phenomena

Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL), the compact, atom-chip based scientific instrument, is expected to be installed on the International Space Station (ISS) during late 2017. The instrument will provide the scientific community with new, interesting, insights into quantum phenomena, and potentially allow the researchers to produce a Bose Einstein Condensate (BEC) state of matter.

The CAL will specifically study degenerate quantum gasses in the microgravity environment of the orbital outpost and will be capable of capturing elements such as Rubidium and Potassium, and producing degenerate gasses of each type, following only several seconds of collection and cooling. 

The instrument has been designed for use by multiple scientific investigators and can be upgraded and maintained on the orbit. CAL is also thought of as a pathfinder experiment for future quantum sensors based on laser-cooled atoms.

The BEC state of matter, of particular research interest to the project, can be induced by cooling very low-density gas to ultra-low temperatures, lower than those so far created in laboratories across our planet.

“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,” said Rob Thompson, CAL Project Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The instrument was set to be launched by the SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket in August 2017. A possible delay may occur due to a recent launch pad explosion which happened on September 3. Both the Falcon 9 and the Amos-6 satellite were destroyed on the occasion, two days before the planned liftoff. It is possible that CAL will be launched by Orbital ATK instead.

The astronauts will install CAL into the EXpedite the PRocessing of Experiments to Space Station (EXPRESS) inside the Destiny module, which will output standard power, data, thermal, and mechanical interface to the new facility.

“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 lbs. (205 kilograms) for the quad locker and 137 lbs. (62 kilograms) for the single one,” explained Thompson.

CAL will be operated from the ground through the sequence control and will require no further participation by the astronauts.

“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."

Initially, the instrument's mission will last one year but may be extended up to five years. According to scientists, CAL may also be upgraded with new laser modules, electronic components or a new physics package.

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