NASA Cold Atom Lab: Building the Coolest Place in the Universe

Written by Gina Smith

NASA is working on creating the coolest — and COLDEST — place in the known universe via its Cold Atom Lab, Why? Find details and a terrific video here. — Researchers at NASA know space is cold. And they’re out to make the known universe a great deal colder in a project to create the absolute coldest place in the universe — with the NASA Cold Atom Lab.

According to NASA researchers, the coldest spot in the universe will be tucked inside the International Space Station by 2016. The Cold Atom Lab refrigerator will launch in the ISS by then, scientists say. The idea is to discover new forms of matter and, of course, to find interesting quantum phenomenon and make observations at crazy cold temperatures. These temperatures bottom out, NASA says, at just one ten billionth of a degree north of absolute zero Kelvin.

Check out the NASA video below that showcases the Cold Atom Lab plans. Scroll below the fold for more on the quantum experiments scientists intend to conduct. Them are some cool beans, all right …

Video: NASA ScienceCasts

According to NASA researchers, space — already cold — drops down to 3 degrees K. That’s about 453 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. That’s cool, but not cold enough for Rob Thompson, project scientist at the NASA Cold Atom Lab. After his team launches the Cold Atom Lab in the ISS, scientists will have created the coldest place inside the known universe. Temperatures inside will be exceedingly chillier than the coldest gas clouds.

Says Thompson:

We aim to push effective temperatures down to 100 pico-Kelvin … that 100 pico-Kelvin temperature is just one ten billionth of a degree above absolute zero … where all the thermal activity of atoms theoretically stops.”

On its excellent summary page of the project, NASA expounds:

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.”

“We’ll begin,” says Thompson, “by studying Bose-Einstein Condensates.”

Oh, yeah.

Bose-Einstein Condensates — or BECs — have a terrifically-cool history — if you love physics, that is.

Back in 1995, researchers found that if you cooled a million or two atoms of rubidium to a temperature near absolute zero, the atoms would merge into a wave. It worked with regular old sodium, too.

Albert Einstein and Satyendra Bose predicted these findings in the early 20th century. And in 2001, the National Institute of Standards & Technology’s Eric Cornell, Carl Wieman of the University of Colorado and MIT’s Wolfgang Ketterle shared a Nobel Prize for the discovery, though they worked independently.

The discovery boils down to this: Create two BECs — add them together — and you’ll find they create waves, not a mixed gas. They even “interfere” as you’d expect waves to. They create, says NASA in its explainer “thin, parallel layers of matter [that] are separated by thin layers of empty space.”

Even more intriguing: One atom in one BEC plus another atom in another BEC potentially will produce no atom at all. “The Cold Atom Lab will allow us to study these objects at perhaps the lowest temperatures ever,” says NASA’s Thompson.

Cool stuff. Pun so totally intended. Read more about the Cold Atom Lab here and watch for more science coverage here at

For Science, I’m Gina Smith.

Gina Smith is the New York Times best-selling author of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s memoir, iWoz Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer and Had Fun Doing It (W.W. Norton, 2005/2007/2012). With John C. Dvorak and Jerry Pournelle, she is the editorial director at Email her at, check out her Google + stream here or follow her @ginasmith888.