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NASA wants to set up 'absolute zero temperature' lab inside the ISS: Why?

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NASA has announced plans to build the "coolest spot in the universe" aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Upon completion, the project will allow scientists to gain a better understanding regarding the behavior of matter when exposed to very cold temperatures.

Scientists have long been wondering about the characteristics of matter at temperatures near absolute zero. Absolute zero is the lowest possible temperature at which a thermodynamic system has the lowest energy i.e. nothing could be colder and no heat energy remains in a substance. However, achieving such low temperatures is not as easy as it seems. The project was proposed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and will be funded by NASA's Physical Science Research Program.

To build the Cold Atom Laboratory, or CAL for short, NASA scientists will take advantage of a new microgravity laboratory. However, the completion of the project is expected to take a while and the new microgravity laboratory will be launched to the ISS in 2016. The completed CAL will allow scientists a rare glimpse at matter exposed to both microgravity and near absolute zero temperatures at the same time. NASA scientists plan to conduct physics research on a variety of topics including the behavior of ultra-cold quantum gases exposed to microgravity conditions.

"NASA's Cold Atom Laboratory (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," NASA said in a statement. 

"This environment makes it possible to conduct research in a way unachievable on Earth because atoms can be observed over a longer period, and mixtures of different atoms can be studied free of the effects of gravity, where cold atoms can be trapped more easily by magnetic fields," the space agency said. 

The CAL will allow scientists to lower the temperatures of certain atoms to approximately -273.15 degrees Celsius or a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. The scientists are hoping that at these temperatures, the affected atoms will cease most of its thermal activity allowing researchers a rare glimpse at quantum mechanical principles at work. Moreover, scientists also hope to expand their knowledge about Bose-Einstein condensates, an exotic state of matter consisting of a dilute gas of bosons existing at temperatures near absolute zero. 

The Cold Atom Laboratory project is one of seven proposals that were recently approved for funding by the NASA Physical Science Research Program. All in all, the approved projects including the CAL project will be given a total budget of around $12.7 million spread out over four or five years.

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