NASA will investigate particles in an extremely cold box in the ISS

Orbital ATK launched a rocket on Monday that includes NASA’s Cold Atom Lab on board. This is a box in which the quantum properties of atoms are studied in temperatures just a fraction above absolute zero.

According to NASA, the box creates a temperature even lower than the temperature of the vacuum in space. In this temperature and aided by the application of lasers and magnetic fields, the atoms are slowed down enormously until they are almost motionless. In the weightlessness of the ISS, the atoms can be studied in those conditions for much longer than on Earth.

According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Cold Atom Lab allows researchers to experiment with the particles for 6.5 hours daily without the help of astronauts. These are gas clouds in which the particles are in a low-energy aggregate state due to the extremely low temperature and in which they move without friction, also known as a Bose-Einstein condensate.

The idea is that studying the atoms in this state provides more information and knowledge about, among other things, gravity, dark energy and the quantum behavior of atoms in these extreme conditions. According to a scientist on the project, the Bose-Einstein condensates can be observed for ten seconds. That is significantly longer than on Earth, where gravity pulls the particles to the ground, making Bose-Einstein condensates visible for only a fraction of a second.

Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft will arrive at the ISS on Thursday, where astronauts will bring in the craft with the ISS’s robotic arm.