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When the Cold Atom Laboratory launches to the International Space Station in 2016, it will become the coldest spot in the universe. Learn how scientists are going to get closer than ever to absolute zero -- and why they want to.

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Space Particles Are Flying Through You Right Now!:

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Part of the International Space Station is about to get very cold. Like colder than any place in the known universe, cold.  And we don't really know what's going to happen when it does but we're doing it on purpose. Creating an environment that's as cold as the laws of physics will allow is the holy grail of quantum mechanics. That's because the less heat that something has, the less energy its atoms have to move around so at some point you'd think that it could get cold enough that they'd stop moving entirely.

We call that point absolute zero. But it's only theoretical,  nothing can ever get that cold. Just like we can't get to the speed of light because we need an infinite amount of work. We can't cool anything to absolute zero because we'd need to extract an infinite amount of heat. But we can get pretty close and when the cold atom laboratory launches to the International Space Station in 2016 we'll get closer than ever.

When lab starts working it will become the coldest place in the known universe. Now space itself is really, really cold with an average temperature of 2.7 kelvin. And the coldest natural place that scientists know of is the Boomerang Nebula which is 1 kelvin. So for now, the coldest places in the universe are actually on Earth. In labs around the globe that  can cool collections of atoms to within a few nanokelvin or billionths of a degree of absolute zero. But the cold atom lab with be  capable of cooling gasses down even more to just one picokelvin. That's only a trillionth of a degree above absolute zero. But other than the fact that this experiment would be literally cooler than cool, why bother doing it?

Because, when matter gets even closer to absolute zero it can on all kinds of new properties that are as crazy as they are useful. And it's all because of changes that take place at tiny mind blowing quantum levels. All particles of matter occupy whats know as a quantum state which describes statistically how they behave based on their energy. Most of the time, different particles will occupy all kinds of different quantum states because they all have different amounts of energy. But when you get really close to absolute zero like within a few nanokelvin, atoms have so little energy that those differences begin to disappear. Instead atoms become incredibly orderly and most of them will enter the lowest quantum state.

When that happens, they can end up forming substances with properties like superfluidity, where matter looks like it's propelling itself all over the place with no regard for gravity and superconductivity where matter becomes a perfect conductor of electricity with no resistance. These properties have all sorts of applications like quantum computing for example, a type of super-fast, quantum-based, information processing that's probably the future of computers. So naturally, physicists are interested in figuring out how to get things as cold as possible to create these awesome properties. But one of the main problems is on Earth, there limited because of gravity.

No matter how cold, calm, and orderly you try and make atoms on Earth gravity is always there. Constantly trying to pull atoms away and mess up your sample but the cold atom lab won't have that problem. The lab will use cooling techniques that are similar to those on Earth. Trapping particles of gash using lasers and magnetic fields. But since it will be in micro gravity, the lab won't have to support the matter against the pull of Earth's gravity. This will not only make it easier to get matter into lowest possible quantum state it also buys scientist a lot more time to study it.

On Earth, you're lucky if you can atoms in place for more than 25 milliseconds, but in space they'll have up to 20 whole seconds at a time to see how matter behaves near absolute zero. The truth is when they do manage to cool atoms down to a picokelvin or two, no one really knows for sure what's going to happen.

Researchers could discover a quantum phenomenon that no one's ever seen before or maybe even an entirely new kinds of matter. Guess we'll just have to wait and see, but you can trust that you'll hear it from us first.

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