Cold Atom Lab

  • Released Thursday, April 24th, 2014
  • Updated Wednesday, May 3rd, 2023 at 1:50PM

Matter conceals a squiggly alter ego. While everyone knows matter’s everyday particle persona, it also has hidden wave properties, akin to sound or light. To explore these properties, scientists chill atoms to the max—or very close to it. As temperatures plummet to nearly absolute zero (-459.67°F), atoms start looking more like waves and less like particles. Droves of atomic wavelets can even start tuning in to the same frequency and wiggle as a single, coherent wave in what’s called a Bose-Einstein condensate. On Earth, gravity’s incessant tug makes it difficult to keep atoms trapped in a condensed state for long. But in 2016, researchers will be able to keep matter colder for longer in the microgravity environment of NASA’s Cold Atom Lab aboard the International Space Station. Watch the video to learn more about this exceedingly cool mission.

In nature, atoms in a gas (shown above) exist as scattered particles.

In nature, atoms in a gas (shown above) exist as scattered particles.

As the atoms are cooled to extremely low temperatures, they become less dispersed.

As the atoms are cooled to extremely low temperatures, they become less dispersed.

Near absolute zero, the atoms fall into lockstep, behaving as a single wave of matter in what's known as a Bose-Einstein condensate.

Near absolute zero, the atoms fall into lockstep, behaving as a single wave of matter in what's known as a Bose-Einstein condensate.

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Credits

Please give credit for this item to:
Science@NASA and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
International Space Station image courtesy of NASA
Computer model image courtesy of NIST