Minimize ISS Utilization: CAL

ISS Utilization: CAL (Cold Atom Laboratory)

Launch    CAL Instrument   Science   Mission Status   References

The CAL instrumentation, developed at NASA/JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Pasadena, California, will probe the wonders of quantum physics when it launches to the International Space Station. The CAL facility recently hit a milestone of making an ultra-cold quantum gas with potassium, a high-tech feat that puts it on track for launch next year. The planned flight to space is in August 2017. 1) 2)

"Studying gases that have been cooled down to extreme temperatures is key to understanding how complexity arises in the universe, and allows us to test the fundamental laws of physics in a whole new way," said Robert Thompson, project scientist for the Cold Atom Laboratory at JPL.

Researchers with CAL are interested in a state of matter called a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC), which happens when all the atoms in a very cold gas have the same energy levels. Like dancers in a chorus line, the atoms become synchronized and behave like one continuous wave instead of discrete particles.

On Earth, gravity limits how long scientists can study Bose-Einstein condensates because this form of matter falls to the bottom of any apparatus used to study it. In microgravity, such condensates can be observed for longer periods of time. This would allow scientists to better understand the properties of particles in this state and their uses for tests of fundamental physics. Ultra-cold atoms in microgravity may also be key to a wide variety of advanced quantum sensors, and exquisitely sensitive measurements of quantities such as gravity, rotations and magnetic fields.

Using lasers, magnetic traps and an electromagnetic "knife" to remove warm particles, CAL will take atoms down to the coldest temperatures ever achieved.

In February 2015, the team created their first ultra-cold quantum gas made from two elemental species: rubidium and potassium. Previously, in 2014, CAL researchers made Bose-Einstein condensates using rubidium, and were able to reliably create them in a matter of seconds. This time, the cooled rubidium was used to bring potassium-39 down to ultra-cold temperatures.

"This marked an important step for the project, as we needed to verify that the instrument could create this two-species ultra-cold gas on Earth before doing so in space," said Anita Sengupta, the project manager for CAL, based at JPL. "We were able to cool the gases down to about a millionth of a degree Kelvin above absolute zero, the point at which atoms would be close to motionless," said JPL's David Aveline, the CAL testbed lead.

That sounds inconceivably cold to mere mortals, but such temperatures are like tropical beach afternoons compared to the ultimate goal of CAL. Researchers hope to cool atoms down to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero when the experimental facility gets to space.

One area of science to which CAL will contribute is called Efimov physics, which makes fascinating predictions about the ways that a small number of particles interact. Isaac Newton had fundamental insights into how two bodies interact — for example, Earth and the moon — but the rules that govern them are more complicated when a third body, such as the sun, is introduced. The interactions become even more complex in a system of three atoms, which behave according to the odd laws of quantum mechanics.

Under the right conditions, ultra-cold gases that CAL produces contain molecules with three atoms each, but are a thousand times bigger than a typical molecule. This results in a low-density, "fluffy" molecule that quickly falls apart unless it is kept extremely cold.

"The way atoms behave in this state gets very complex, surprising and counterintuitive, and that's why we're doing this," said Eric Cornell, a physicist at the University of Colorado and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, both in Boulder, and member of the CAL science team. Cornell shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in physics for creating Bose-Einstein condensates.

At a recent meeting at JPL, researchers associated with the mission gathered to discuss ongoing developments and their scientific goals, which range from dark matter detection to atom lasers. They included Cornell, who, along with co-investigator Peter Engels of Washington State University, is leading one of the CAL experiments. "CAL science investigators could open new doors into the quantum world and will demonstrate new technologies for future NASA missions," said CAL Deputy Project Manager Kamal Oudrhiri at JPL.

The CAL (Cold Atom Laboratory) project office is at JPL, which is developing the instrument in-house. CAL is a joint partnership of JPL, NASA's International Space Station Program Office at theJSC ( Johnson Space Center) in Houston, and the Space Life and Physical Sciences Branch at NASA HQ. The CAL Project Scientist is Rob Thompson at NASA/JPL.


Figure 1: JPL's David Aveline and Anita Sengupta are seen with the physics package for the Cold Atom Laboratory, which includes a vacuum chamber where ultra-cold quantum gases are made (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Background: The quest for ever colder temperatures has been a major theme of physics for over a century, leading to such breakthroughs such as the discovery of superfluidity and superconductivity, and more recently to the development of laser cooling techniques and the observation of dilute atomic-gas BECs (Bose-Einstein Condensates) and super-fluid Fermi gases.

Beyond the great interest in the scientific aspects of these phenomena, these advances have also been at the heart of several important devices from SQUIDS (Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices) to lasercooled atomic clocks and atom interferometer-based sensors such as a gravity gradiometer for global gravity mapping.

The 2011 NRC (National Research Council) Decadal Survey report, "Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration, Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era," recommended a set of high priority areas in Fundamental Physics which includes research related to the physics and applications of quantum gasses. The Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) will be a multi-user facility designed to study ultra-cold quantum gases in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station (ISS). One of the primary goals of this facility will be to explore a previously inaccessible regime of extremely low temperatures where interesting and novel quantum phenomena can be expected.

Mission overview: 3) 4) 5)

CAL will be a facility for the study of ultra-cold quantum gases in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station (ISS). It will enable research in a temperature regime and force free environment that is inaccessible to terrestrial laboratories. In the microgravity environment, up to 20 second long interaction times and as low as 1 pK (1 picokelvin) temperatures are achievable, unlocking the potential to observe new quantum phenomena. The CAL facility is designed for use by multiple scientific investigators and to be upgradable/maintainable on orbit. CAL will also be a pathfinder experiment for future quantum sensors based on laser cooled atoms.

Science mission objectives:

The CAL science mission objectives are derived from the microgravity decadal survey. CAL utilizes the microgravity environment of the International Space Station (ISS) to form, create, and study ultra-cold quantum gases. CAL will be a technology and science pathfinder mission with the first ever demonstration of the following areas:

• Laser cooling of Rubidium (Rb) in a space environment

• Laser cooling of Potassium (K) in any microgravity environment

• Dual species laser cooling in a space environment

• Magnetic trapping in a space environment

• Evaporative cooling in a space environment

• BEC (Bose Einstein Condensate) in a space environment

• Degenerate Fermi gas in any microgravity environment

• Dual species degenerate gases, both Bose-Bose and Bose-Fermi in any microgravity environment

• Delta-kick Cooling to temperatures below 100 pK (pico Kelvin)

• Interaction times greater than 5 seconds

• Atom interferometry in a space environment.

As CAL is a multi-used facility, it will allow the scientific community to propose experiments using the instrument with the following over-arching capabilities:

• Study dual species degenerate gases, both Bose-Bose and Bose-Fermi in microgravity

• Study 87Rb, 3941K and 40 K, and interactions between mixtures with residual kinetic energy below 100 pK with free expansion times greater than 5 seconds.

• Study the properties of quantum gases in the presence of external magnetic fields tuned near interspecies or single-species Feshbach resonances.

• Demonstrate atom interferometry with a Bragg beam

• Demonstration of Delta-Kick Cooling and Evaporative Cooling in a space environment.


Figure 2: CAL Mission architecture (image credit: NASA/JPL)

Development status:

• Sept. 7, 2017: Early next year, NASA will launch its $70 million Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) to the International Space Station (ISS). Once in orbit, the fully automated rig will create BECs (Boise Einstein Condensates) and do other cold atom experiments, taking advantage of weightlessness to attain record-low temperatures and break ground for ambitious studies of quantum mechanics and gravity. 6)

• March 6, 2017: In the summer 2017, an ice chest-sized box will fly to the International Space Station, where it will create the coolest spot in the universe. Inside that box, lasers, a vacuum chamber and an electromagnetic "knife" will be used to cancel out the energy of gas particles, slowing them until they're almost motionless. This suite of instruments is called the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL), and was developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. CAL is in the final stages of assembly at JPL, ahead of a ride to space this August on SpaceX CRS-12. 7)

• September 1, 2016: The CAL Science Module and Science Instrument are in the final stages of assembly prior to System Test (Figure 3, Ref. 8).


Figure 3: Left: The image (science module) shows the vacuum chamber installed inside a magnetic shield. Right: The image (science instrument) is the quad locker that contains the electronics, lasers, and science module (image credit: NASA/JPL)

• May 19, 2016: The Atom Interferometer enabled flight vacuum assembly has arrived at JPL for system integration and test. This unit will use laser pulses to split and recombine atomic wave packets and to measure the quantum interference of the matter waves. The purpose is to demonstrate the technology and techniques needed for these space-based sensors to probe for dark matter and to test quantum mechanics and Einstein's equivalence principle. 8)

• January 29, 2014: NASA's Physical Science Research Program will fund seven proposals, including one from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., to conduct physics research using the agency's new microgravity laboratory, which is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in 2017. 9)

The chosen proposals came from research teams, which include three Nobel laureates, in response to NASA's research announcement NNH13ZTT002N: "Research Opportunities in Fundamental Physics." The following proposals will receive a total of about $12.7 million over a four- to five-year period:

- Dan Stamper-Kurn, University of California, Berkeley, "Coherent magnon optics"

- Jason Williams, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, "Fundamental Interactions for Atom Interferometry with Ultracold Quantum Gases in a Microgravity Environment"

- Eric Cornell, University of Colorado, Boulder, "Zero-G Studies of Few-Body and Many-Body Physics"

- Nathan Lundblad, Bates College, "Microgravity dynamics of bubble-geometry Bose-Einstein condensates"

- Georg Raithel, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, "High-precision microwave spectroscopy of long-lived circular-state Rydberg atoms in microgravity"

- Nicholas Bigelow, University of Rochester, "Consortium for Ultracold Atoms in Space"

- Cass Sackett, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, "Development of Atom Interferometry Experiments for the International Space Station's Cold Atom Laboratory".

NASA/JPL is developing the Cold Atom Laboratory. The facility is managed by the International Space Station Program at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

• Oct. 18, 2013 (update): NASA has set a due date for proposals submitted to the NASA Research Announcement (NRA) NNH13ZTT002N, entitled "Research Opportunities in Fundamental Physics." The deadline for the receipt of proposals has changed from October 16, 2013, to November 5, 2013. — Initial (July 13, 2013): NASA has released a Research Announcement entitled "Research Opportunities in Fundamental Physics." This NRA solicits research proposals from Principal Investigators from U.S. institutions to participate in NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) facility on the International Space Station (ISS). CAL is a multi-user facility designed to study ultra-cold atoms and degenerate quantum gases in microgravity. 10)

• The 2011 NRC (National Research Council) Decadal Survey report, "Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration, Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era," recommended a set of high priority areas in Fundamental Physics which includes research related to the physics and applications of quantum gasses.

Launch: The ISS-CAL (Cold Atom Laboratory) instrumentation was launched on 21 May 2018 (08:44 UTC) on the Orbital ATK OA-9E cargo resupply mission of a Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS from MARS (Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport), Wallops Island, VA. Cygnus will deliver vital equipment, supplies and scientific equipment to the space station as part of Orbital ATK’s CRS (Commercial Resupply Services) contract with NASA. 11) 12)

Orbit: Near circular orbit, altitude of ~ 400 km, inclination = 51.6º.

The ELaNa 23 (Education Launch of Nanosatellites 23) initiative payloads of NASA on OA-9E are: 13)

• HaloSat (Soft X-ray Surveyor), a 6U CubeSat of the University of Iowa (6 kg), Iowa City, Iowa.

• TEMPEST-D1 (Temporal Experiment for Storms and Tropical Systems Technology - Demonstration 1) , a 6U CubeSat of CSU (Colorado State University), Fort Collins, CO.

• EQUiSat, a 1U CubeSat of Brown University, Providence, R.I.

• MemSat, a 1U CubeSat of Rowan University, Glassboro, N.J.

• Radix, a 6U CubeSat (10 kg) of Analytical Space of Cambridge, MA, USA, to test a laser communications downlink.

• CaNOP (Canopy Near-IR Observing Project), a 3U CubeSat of Carthage College, Kenosha, WIS, USA.

• RadSat, (Radiation-tolerant SmallSat Computer System), a 3U CubeSat of MSU (Montana State University), Bozeman, Montana.

• RaInCube (Radar In a CubeSat), a 6U CubeSat of NASA/JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Pasadena, CA.

• SORTIE (Scintillation Observations and Response of the Ionosphere to Electrodynamics), a 6U CubeSat of ASTRA (Atmospheric & Space Technology Research Associates), Boulder, CO.

• CubeRTT (CubeSat Radiometer Radio Frequency Interference Technology) Validation Mission , a 6U CubeSat of OSU (Ohio State University), Columbus, Ohio.

• AeroCube-12A and -12B, a pair of 3U CubeSats of the Aerospace Corporation, El Segundo , CA, to demonstrate a the technological capability of new star-tracker imaging, a variety of nanotechnology payloads, advanced solar cells, and an electric propulsion system on on one of the two satellites (AC12-B).

• EnduroSat One, a 1U CubeSat of Bulgaria, developed by Space Challenges program and EnduroSat collaborating with the Bulgarian Federation of Radio Amateurs (BFRA) for the first Bulgarian Amateur Radio CubeSat mission.

After docking with the ISS, the CAL payload will be installed by astronauts into an EXPRESS (EXpedite the PRocessing of Experiments to Space Station) Rack inside the the U.S. Destiny module, a pressurized "shirt-sleeves" laboratory aboard the ISS. CAL will take up the entire top half of one EXPRESS rack. Once installed, there will be no further astronaut involvement; the instrument is operated remotely from the ground via sequence control. Test sequences will be developed by the CAL operations team in conjunction with Principal Investigators (PIs). The phase one mission duration will last up to 36 months dedicated to flight PI led research. An extended mission of up to five years is expected, with upgrades to the facility possible. Data will be downloaded and distributed to PIs within several weeks of collection. Short periods of near real-time operation will also be available if desired.


Figure 4: Installation into the EXPRESS Rack with docking with ISS Sequence Control Operation from JPL (image credit: NASA)

CAL (Cold Atom Laboratory) instrumentation

The CAL instrument utilizes COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf ) hardware and software to enable a rapid development. This ensures launch to the ISS in 2017. In Figure 5, CAL is shown in its quad lock configuration. On the left are the electronics components, which are cooled with liquid heat exchangers to maintain a safe operational temperature. On the right is the science module and laser assembly. Fiber-optic coupled lasers to simplify optic-mechanical design. Forced convection with fans is used to cool the lasers and science module. On the right is the science module, which is the heart of the CAL instrument. It is encased in a magnetic shield to attenuate the the magnetic field of the earth, which varies over the course of the orbit A more detailed image of the science module is shown in the lower figure. Note the 2D and 3D laser cooling stages, optical mounts, and structure. 14) 15)

The CAL facility is designed with a modular approach, which allows for greater reliability, as it can be maintained by the astronauts, but which also offers the possibility of upgrading its capabilities. Potential upgrades could include (but are not limited to) new laser modules, new electronic components, or a new physics package (which consists of vacuum system, atom chip and associated magnetic field control, along with the optical beam delivery apparatus. PI's would be expected to assist in the specification of potential upgrades, but the engineering effort would be funded separately.


Figure 5: Illustration of the CAL instrument (image credit: NASA/JPL)


Figure 6: Left: The CAL science module with magnetic shield and right: the CAL science module without magnetic shield (image credit: NASA/JPL)

Ballistic expansion of a cold atom cloud: In CAL's Ground Testbed, a vapor of rubidium (Rb) atoms is laser cooled, magnetically trapped, transported into an atom chip trap, and then evaporatively cooled down to nanoKelvin (nK) temperatures. These ultra cold atoms are then released and observed to fall due to gravity (in terrestrial experiments such as this one). During its fall, this thermal atom cloud expands due to its finite temperature. We image the atoms with a pair of laser beam flashes; the first flash captures a "shadow" of the atom cloud, while the second flash records a reference image. We can then process the images to get the density distribution of the cloud (in these images RED is the most dense while BLACK is zero density). The expansion rate provides a measurement of the temperature of the ultra cold Rb. The snapshots in this clip indicate the time of flight in milliseconds of the dropped cloud in the upper left. The RF (Radio Frequency) is noted in the upper right corner indicating the final value of the RF knife that we applied during forced evaporative cooling. 16)


Figure 7: CAL in Express Rack (front panels removed for clarity), image credit: NASA/JPL

Science background:

Over the past three decades, much advancement has been made in Earth-based laboratories in reducing the temperature of Bose Einstein Condensate (BEC) to below the condensate temperature. Inherent to these experiments is the application of an intense magneto-optical trap to hold the atoms in place to obtain the required cooling, due to the pull of gravity. Drop tower experiments have also been performed, which is a high quality microgravity environment, but interaction times are limited to less than 1 second. Formation of BECs in space-based experiments can therefore significantly increase interaction time and reduce perturbations that come from applied fields. Specifically, longer observation time for unconfined atoms. Such a space-based laboratory could lead to exploration of unknown quantum mechanical phenomena and the understanding that comes with it. 17)


Figure 8: Condensate atom cloud imaged in the IR with decreasing temperature (image credit: NASA/JPL)


Figure 9: Transition from a particle to wave nature with decreasing temperature (image credit: NASA/JPL)

What is a Bose Einstein Condensate (BEC) ?

Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein first proposed Bose Einstein Statistics in 1924. They theorized that there are two classes of fundamental particles in the universe, Bosons, and Fermions. Fermions cannot occupy the same quantum state, and therefore follow the Pauli Exclusion Principle. However, Bosons can occupy the same quantum state and therefore can exhibit macroscopic behavior. If a population of Bosons is reduced to a temperature below their condensate temperature, a new state of matter, called a Bose Einstein Condensate (BEC), is formed. Where the population of atoms takes on a wave like nature, eventually the same wave function, and a macroscopic matter wave is observable, as shown in Figure 1. In this state, a BEC exhibits macroscopic quantum behavior. This was proposed by Bose and later created in ground based laboratory experiments by C. Tannoudji, S. Chu, W. D. Phillips, E. A. Cornell, W. G. Ketterle and C. E. Wieman. All these scientists won Nobel prizes for their discoveries and the novel techniques to obtain the BECs.

Formation of the Condensate:

The process of laser cooling is summarized in the image below. The species of interest is exposed to a photon flux tuned to a particular resonance frequency. At resonance the photons impart momentum to the atoms. If the photon frequency is Doppler red-shifted from resonance then only atoms coming towards the laser beams will be affected. Those moving away from the laser will be unaffected by the photon flux. If laser beams are such that they are coming from all directions the atoms will be cooled from all directions. This laser cooling, lowers the atom population temperature to ~100 µKelvin, still above the condensate temperature.

The next stage of cooling is evaporative cooling with an applied Radio Frequency (RF) field. Another unique property of atoms is that for atoms above a certain energy level, when exposed to an RF field, they can be excited and essentially removed from the population, leaving behind only those at a lower energy and therefore population temperature. This is called evaporative cooling and brings the temperature of the population to much below 1 µKelvin (<< 1 µK).

The final stage of cooling is adiabatic expansion. The atoms are held and compressed on an integrated circuit with a precisely tuned magnetic field. When the field is turned off the cloud expands, and cools further. The final stage brings the population to below the nK range, and in the space environment, to the pK (10-12 K) range. The condensate is formed and can live on the order of 20 seconds in microgravity where it can be exposed to other magnetic fields, electric fields, species of condensate, and imaged.


Figure 10: Laser cooling:Formation of the condensate uses a combination of laser and evaporative cooling and adiabatic expansion (image credit: NASA/JPL)

The Atom Chip:

• Compound silicon and glass substrate technology enables both magnetic and optical control of ultra-cold atoms.

• On-window wires enable simultaneous magnetic trapping and optical manipulation.

The CAL atom chip consists of lithographically patterned wires on a silicon substrate, which forms one wall of the CAL science chamber. Currents passing through these wires, in conjunction with external bias fields, allow for the formation of magnetic traps in a variety of configurations. Condensation is typically achieved in a trap in a "dimple" configuration, consisting of a wire pattern in a "z" configuration (Figure 11), with an additional waveguide superimposed on top, as shown in the figure below. Trap frequencies can be adjusted from 50-10,000 Hz, with approximately a 6:1 ratio to radial to axial frequencies. Condensates are typically formed in a tight trap about 100 µm from the atom chip. By ramping down the bias field they can be transported away from the chip's surface into a weaker trap. In Earth's gravity it is possible to move atoms up to 400 microns from the chip's surface; in microgravity this can be extended to greater than 1.0 mm. The exact configuration of the CAL atom chip has not been finalized, and PIs will have input into this design. 18)


Figure 11: "Dimple" trap wire configuration (image credit: NASA/JPL)

• At super-low temperatures, atoms behave in surprising ways.

• NASA has never before created or observed this behavior in space.

• A Nobel Prize winner and other scientists will conduct experiments on this behavior using new technology.

• This technology might one day lead to improved sensors, quantum computers, and atomic clocks used in spacecraft navigation.

Table 1: Behavior of atoms at super-low temperatures (Ref. 7)

The CAL instrumentation is designed to freeze gas atoms to a mere billionth of a degree above absolute zero. That's more than 100 million times colder than the depths of space.

"Studying these hyper-cold atoms could reshape our understanding of matter and the fundamental nature of gravity," said CAL Project Scientist Robert Thompson of JPL. "The experiments we'll do with the Cold Atom Lab will give us insight into gravity and dark energy — some of the most pervasive forces in the universe."


Figure 12: Artist's concept of a magneto-optical trap and atom chip to be used by NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) aboard the ISS (image credit: NASA/JPL, Ref. 7)

CAL will provide an opportunity to study ultra-cold quantum gases in the microgravity environment of the space station — a frontier in scientific research that is expected to reveal interesting and novel quantum phenomena.

Science Mesurements:

In CAL's Ground Testbed, a vapor of rubidium (Rb) atoms is laser cooled, magnetically trapped, transported into an atom chip trap, and then evaporatively cooled down to nanoKelvin temperatures. These ultra cold atoms are then released and observed to fall due to gravity (in terrestrial experiments such as this one). During its fall this thermal atom cloud expands due to its finite temperature. We image the atoms with a pair of laser beam flashes; the first flash captures a "shadow" of the atom cloud, while the second flash records a reference image. We can then process the images to get the density distribution of the cloud (in these images RED is the most dense while BLACK is zero density). The expansion rate provides a measurement of the temperature of the ultra cold Rb. The snapshots in this clip indicate the time of flight in milliseconds of the dropped cloud in the upper left. The radio frequency (RF) is noted in the upper right corner indicating the final value of the RF knife that we applied during forced evaporative cooling. 19)

Figure 13: Ballistic expansion of a cold atom cloud, RF cooled atoms dropped (image credit: David C. Aveline, CAL Ground Testbed, JPL)

In CAL's Ground Testbed, a vapor of rubidium (Rb) atoms is evaporatively cooled in an atom chip trap utilizing a radio frequency (RF) "knife" that continuously slices away the hottest atoms. With the hottest atoms removed, the cloud can re-thermalize at a cooler temperature much like a hot cup of tea gets cooler over time as the hottest molecules evaporate. This RF knife’s frequency is smoothly ramped down from ~30 MHz down to ~1 MHz. The lower the cut with the RF frequency, the colder and more dense the atom cloud becomes, and if done efficiently it may cross the critical temperature to achieve a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC). The snapshots in this clip show the decreasing size (increasing density) and decreasing temperature of the Rb cloud when lower final RF values are applied.

Figure 14: Evaporative cooling with an RF Knife using RF stages (image credit: David C. Aveline, CAL Ground Testbed, JPL)

Status of ISS-CAL (Cold Atom Lab)

• May 12, 2020: NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory, a facility for fundamental physics experiments on the International Space Station, recently underwent a major hardware upgrade with the help of astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir. By chilling atom clouds to just above absolute zero - the lowest temperature matter can reach - Cold Atom Lab enables scientists to directly observe unique atomic behaviors, helping answer questions about how our world works at the smallest scales. The new hardware will dramatically expand Cold Atom Lab's capabilities. 20)

- Installing the upgrade in space was something of an experiment as well. On Earth, that task would fall to engineers with years of experience handling the components. To avoid bringing the facility back down from the space station - a costly and time-consuming step - the mission team guided Koch and Meir through the installation via live video conference from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

- "With this upgrade, we were effectively replacing the heart of Cold Atom Lab, and everything had to go perfectly," said Kamal Oudrhiri, project manager for Cold Atom Lab at JPL. "Astronauts are extremely smart, capable people, but we felt like heart surgeons trying to show a general practitioner how to do surgery for the first time. We did everything we could to ensure success, but truthfully I was very nervous."


Figure 15: Astronaut Christina Koch assists with a hardware upgrade for NASA's Cold Atom Lab aboard the International Space Station in January 2020 (image credit: NASA-International Space Station)

Figure 16: In January 2020, members of the Cold Atom Lab operations team worked with astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir on a hardware upgrade to Cold Atom Lab while the facility was still aboard the International Space Station (video credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech, NASA-International Space Station)

Why So Cold?

- Physicists use ultracold atom facilities on Earth for a variety of experiments that probe the fundamental behaviors of atoms. Chilling atoms to within one ten billionth of a degree above 0 Kelvin (minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 273.15 degrees Celsius) causes them to slow down significantly, making them easier to study. At those temperatures, some atoms can also form a fifth state of matter, called a Bose-Einstein condensate that does not exist in nature. Bose-Einstein condensates provide a unique window into the strange world of quantum mechanics, which governs the universe at very small scales.

- Cold Atom Lab is the first ultracold atom facility in Earth orbit. In the weightless environment of space, atoms aren't pulled down by gravity, so they exist in their unbound, ultracool state for long periods of time. This characteristic enables scientists to observe their natural behaviors in a way that is not possible on Earth.

- Five science groups have been conducting experiments with Cold Atom Lab since it began operating in the summer of 2018, and they're eager to begin working with the upgraded hardware, including a new instrument called an atom interferometer. In space, atom interferometry could have multiple applications, including making exquisitely subtle measurements of gravity that are useful for fundamental physics research, planetary science and other fields.

- For example, atom interferometry could be used to measure changes in gravity across a planet's surface to learn about its composition and subsurface features. The tool could also be used to test Albert Einstein's fundamental theory of gravity to an unprecedented degree. The Cold Atom Lab team recently confirmed that the atom interferometer is working as expected, making it the first instrument of its kind to operate in space.

- "With Cold Atom Lab we're looking for new physics that pops up only when you can study the universe at extremely fine scales," said Jason Williams, the lead scientist for the Cold Atom Lab atom interferometer at JPL.

No Second Chance

- Cold Atom Lab consists of two metal boxes, the larger of which is called the Science Instrument and weighs over 400 pounds (180 kilograms). Inside is a compartment called the Science Module, which is where the atoms are cooled and the science takes place.

- To complete the upgrade, Koch and Meir would have to gently maneuver the sizeable Science Instrument out of its operating location on the space station, remove the old Science Module and replace it with the new one.

- Months before the installation, members of the Cold Atom Lab team worked with the Payload Operation and Integration Center at NASA's Marshal Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to create instructions for Koch and Meir. They divided the installation into six sessions over eight days, including practice for Koch. Crew time on the station is extremely valuable, so the mission team spent weeks practicing the steps on Earth to optimize the procedure.

- "There are so many details that it's difficult to even explain," said Jim Kellogg, launch vehicle and space station integration lead for Cold Atom Lab at JPL. "We had to consider details such as what tools will the crew need? If we need to borrow a tool from another group on the space station, how do we do that? Where is everything going to be temporarily stowed while the astronauts are working on our instrument? Every detail needs to be documented and signed off, and the people at Marshall Space Flight Center supported us through every step of the way."

- To reinstall the Science Instrument, Koch, working alone, would have to inspect and connect 11 precision fiber optic cables. The glass fiber cores of the cables are about one-twentieth the diameter of a human hair, and if any were broken, contaminated or scratched, it could potentially result in mission-ending failures.

- "She was absolutely fantastic," Kellogg said of Koch. "Every time I was about to remind her of something or give her a heads-up about what was coming, she would already be on top of it. She was so attentive to every detail in our procedures and to the guidance I was giving her. She was amazing in every way."

- Koch was equally enthusiastic about the experience. "It took me over 300 days [since arriving on the space station] to get to work on Cold Atom Lab, but it was worth it," she said on the first day of the activity.

- And how did the installation turn out? So far, it looks like a complete success.

- "This was an extremely difficult endeavor that required a dedicated team on the ground and two committed astronauts, Christina and Jessica," said Oudrhiri. "If this installation hadn't gone well, there would have been no second chance. We'd have to bring the entire flight instrument back to Earth, and that could have set us back at least two years."

- Once testing and analysis of the new hardware are complete in the coming weeks, the team expects the science groups that use the Cold Atom Lab to begin taking data again.

- Building an ultracold atom facility that could withstand the trip to space, operate with little to no astronaut assistance, and even be upgraded in orbit took the Cold Atom Lab team years. Now they hope their work has kicked off an era in which quantum science is done regularly in orbit.

- Designed and built at JPL, Cold Atom Lab is sponsored by the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA) division of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington and the International Space Station Program at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

• December 17, 2019: Astronaut Christina Koch recently gave a warm welcome to a very cool arrival to the International Space Station: a new piece of hardware for the CAL (Cold Atom Lab), an experimental physics facility that chills atoms to almost absolute zero, or minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 273 degrees Celsius). That's colder than any known place in the universe. 21)

- The Cold Atom Lab has been up and running in the space station's science module since July 2018 and is operated remotely from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Five groups of scientists on Earth are using the Cold Atom Lab to conduct a variety of experiments to help answer questions about how our world works at the smallest scales.

- The new hardware includes an instrument called an atom interferometer that will allow scientists to make subtle measurements of gravity and probe fundamental theories of gravity. Further development of this technology in space could lead to improved inertial-force sensors, which could be used to design tools for enhanced spacecraft navigation, to probe the composition and topology of planets and other celestial bodies, and to study Earth's climate.

- Chilling atoms to such low temperatures slows them down significantly, enabling scientists to study them more easily. (Room-temperature atoms move faster than the speed of sound, while ultracold atoms move slower than a garden snail.) Ultracold atom physics has led to breakthroughs such as the discovery of superfluidity and superconductivity, as well as the production of a fifth state of matter, called a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC). First predicted in the 1920s, BECs allow scientists to observe quantum behaviors of atoms on a macroscopic scale.

- Physicists have been using ultracold atom facilities in Earth-bound labs for more than 20 years. But CAL is the first such facility in Earth orbit, where the microgravity environment provides scientists longer observing times for individual bunches of atoms and may allow for colder temperatures than what can be achieved on the ground.


Figure 17: Astronaut Christina Koch unloads new hardware for the Cold Atom Lab aboard the International Space Station the week of Dec. 9, 2020(image credit: NASA)

- Ultracold atoms also provide a window into quantum mechanics, where particles can behave in strange ways, such as spontaneously passing through physical barriers or communicating instantaneously over long distances. The study of quantum mechanics has led to the development of such ubiquitous technologies as lasers, semiconductors and transistors. By making the leap into Earth orbit, the Cold Atom Lab may open the door for the development of quantum technologies in space.

- About the size of a mini refrigerator, the Cold Atom Lab will be equipped with the newly arrived hardware in 2020. Designed and built at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the Cold Atom Lab was is sponsored by the International Space Station Program at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA) Division of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

• December 20, 2018: ISS-CAL is the first facility in orbit to produce clouds of "ultracold" atoms, which can reach a fraction of a degree above absolute zero: -459ºF (-273ºC), the absolute coldest temperature that matter can reach. Nothing in nature is known to hit the temperatures achieved in laboratories like CAL, which means the orbiting facility is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe. 22)

Figure 18: NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory on the ISS is regularly the coldest known spot in the universe. But why are scientists producing clouds of atoms a fraction of a degree above absolute zero? And why do they need to do it in space? Quantum physics, of course (video credit: NASA/JPL)

- Seven months after its May 21, 2018, launch to the space station from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, CAL is producing ultracold atoms daily. Five teams of scientists will carry out experiments on CAL during its first year, and three experiments are already underway.

- Why cool atoms to such an extreme low? Room-temperature atoms typically zip around like hyperactive humming birds, but ultracold atoms move much slower than even a snail. Specifics vary, but ultracold atoms can be more than 200,000 times slower than room-temperature atoms. This opens up new ways to study atoms as well as new ways to use them for investigations of other physical phenomena. CAL's primary science objective is to conduct fundamental physics research - to try to understand the workings of nature at the most fundamental levels.

- "With CAL we're starting to get a really thorough understanding of how the atoms behave in microgravity, how to manipulate them, how the system is different than the ones we use on Earth," said Rob Thompson, a cold atom physicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the mission scientist for CAL. "This is all knowledge that is going to build a foundation for what I hope is a long future of cold atom science in space."

- Laboratories on Earth can produce ultracold atoms, but on the ground, gravity pulls on the chilled atom clouds and they fall quickly, giving scientists only fractions of a second to observe them. Magnetic fields can be used to "trap" the atoms and hold them still, but that restricts their natural movement. In microgravity, the cold atom clouds float for much longer, giving scientists an extended view of their behavior.

- The process to create the cold atom clouds starts with lasers that begin to lower the temperature by slowing the atoms down. Radio waves cut away the warmest members of the group, further lowering the average temperature. Finally, the atoms are released from a magnetic trap and allowed to expand. This causes a drop in pressure that, in turn, naturally causes another drop in the cloud's temperature (the same phenomenon that causes a can of compressed air to feel cold after use). In space, the cloud has longer to expand and thus reach even lower temperatures than what can be achieved on Earth - down to about one ten billionth of a degree above absolute zero, perhaps even lower.

- Ultracold atom facilities on Earth typically occupy an entire room, and in most, the hardware is left exposed so that scientists can adjust the apparatus if need be. Building a cold atom laboratory for space posed several design challenges, some of which change the fundamental nature of these facilities. First, there was the matter of size: CAL flew to the station in two pieces - a metal box a little larger than a minifridge and a second one about the size of a carry-on suitcase. Second, CAL was designed to be operated remotely from Earth, so it was built as a fully enclosed facility.

- CAL also features a number of technologies that have never been flown in space before, such as specialized vacuum cells that contain the atoms, which have to be sealed so tightly that almost no stray atoms can leak in. The lab needed to be able to withstand the shaking of launch and extreme forces experienced during the flight to the space station. It took the teams several years to develop unique hardware that could meet the precise needs for cooling atoms in space.

- "Several parts of the system required redesigning, and some parts broke in ways we'd never seen before," said Robert Shotwell, chief engineer for JPL's Astronomy, Physics and Space Technology Directorate and CAL project manager. "The facility had to be completely torn apart and reassembled three times."

- All the hard work and problem solving since the mission's inception in 2012 turned the CAL team's vision into reality this past May. CAL team members talked via live video with astronauts Ricky Arnold and Drew Feustel aboard the International Space Station for the installation of the Cold Atom Laboratory, the second ultracold atom facility ever operated in space, the first to reach Earth orbit and the first to remain in space for more than a few minutes. Along the way, CAL has also met the minimum requirements NASA set to deem the mission a success and is providing a unique tool for probing nature's mysteries.

- Designed and built at JPL, CAL is sponsored by the International Space Station Program at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications (SLPSRA) Division of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

• July 27, 2018: NASA's ISS-CAL instrument was installed in the station's U.S. science lab in late May and is now producing clouds of ultracold atoms known as BECs (Bose-Einstein Condensates). These BECs reach temperatures just above absolute zero, the point at which atoms should theoretically stop moving entirely. This is the first time BECs have ever been produced in orbit. 23)

- CAL is a multiuser facility dedicated to the study of fundamental laws of nature using ultracold quantum gases in microgravity. Cold atoms are long-lived, precisely controlled quantum particles that provide an ideal platform for the study of quantum phenomena and potential applications of quantum technologies. This NASA facility is the first of its kind in space. It is designed to advance scientists' ability to make precision measurements of gravity, probing long-standing problems in quantum physics (the study of the universe at the very smallest scales), and exploring the wavelike nature of matter.

- "Having a BEC experiment operating on the space station is a dream come true," said Robert Thompson, CAL project scientist and a physicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "It's been a long, hard road to get here, but completely worth the struggle, because there's so much we're going to be able to do with this facility."

- CAL scientists confirmed last week that the facility has produced BECs from atoms of rubidium, with temperatures as low as 100 nanoKelvin, or one ten-millionth of one Kelvin above absolute zero. (Absolute zero, or zero Kelvin, is equal to minus 273 degrees Celsius). That's colder than the average temperature of space, which is about 3 Kelvin (minus 270 degrees Celsius). But the CAL scientists have their sights set even lower, and expect to reach temperatures colder than what any BEC experiments have achieved on Earth.

- At these ultracold temperatures, the atoms in a BEC begin to behave unlike anything else on Earth. In fact, BECs are characterized as a fifth state of matter, distinct from gases, liquids, solids and plasma. In a BEC, atoms act more like waves than particles. The wave nature of atoms is typically only observable at microscopic scales, but BECs make this phenomenon macroscopic, and thus much easier to study. The ultracold atoms all assume their lowest energy state, and take on the same wave identity, becoming indistinguishable from one another. Together, the atom clouds are like a single "super atom," instead of individual atoms.


Figure 19: This graph shows the changing density of a cloud of atoms as it is cooled to lower and lower temperatures (going from left to right) approaching absolute zero. The emergence of a sharp peak in the later graphs confirms the formation of a Bose-Einstein condensate — a fifth state of matter — occurring here at a temperature of 130 nanoKelvin, or less than 1 Kelvin above absolute zero (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)


Figure 20: JPL scientists and members of the Cold Atom Lab's atomic physics team (left to right) David Aveline, Ethan Elliott and Jason Williams, shown here in the Earth Orbiting Missions Operation Center at JPL, where Cold Atom Lab (CAL) is remotely controlled and tuned. Displayed on the screen behind them is an image of CAL on the International Space Station. Aveline, Elliott and Williams were instrumental in producing the first ever Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) in orbit with CAL (image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

• June 1, 2018: The crew installed and configured the CAL (Cold Atom Laboratory) and began operation of a six-week checkout. Ultimately, results of this research could improve a number of different technologies, including sensors, quantum computers and atomic clocks used in spacecraft navigation. 24)

Figure 21: CAL uses lasers and magnetic traps to slow down atoms until they are almost motionless, creating clouds of atoms ten billion times colder than deep space. In microgravity, scientists can observe these ultra-cold atoms for much longer than possible on the ground, which could help answer some big questions in modern physics (image credit: NASA)

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4) ”CAL AScience Poster,” URL:

5) David Aveline and the CAL Team, ”The Cold Atom Laboratory: a facility for ultracold atom experiments aboard the International Space Station,” APS (American Physical Society) Division of Atomic and Molecular Physics Meeting 2016, abstract #P6.003, May 2016, URL of abstract:

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12) ”Cygnus™ OA-9 Mission,” Orbital ATK fact sheet, 8 May 2018, URL:

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The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (

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