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When atoms get really cold

The cold environment is crucial for a number of experiments but the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) takes this to extreme levels. The laboratory is now heading to the International Space Station (ISS) to study what happens when atoms get really cold.

The main brain behind this project of US space agency is Indian-American scientist Anita Sengupta. From 2012 to 2017 she managed and led the development of the Cold Atom Laboratory, a laser-cooling quantum physics facility for the ISS.

Anita Sengupta sees this as a great team achievement. “I led the team from 2012 to 2017, from the original proposal to a few months from launch. One of the few female project managers in a predominantly male-dominated field,” she said.

Cold Atom Laboratory

Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) is expected to be 10 billion times colder than the vacuum of space. The laboratory is expected to give a major boost to a number of technologies including sensors, quantum computers and atomic clocks (used in spacecraft navigation).

“CAL will make it possible to observe these ultra-cold atoms much longer in the microgravity environment,” said NASA.

Dr. Anita clarified that: It is not changing the atmosphere inside the ISS, only within the self-contained experiment.

Why the cold?

Cooling the atoms down to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero is less about air conditioning and more about eliminating as much movement as possible. The Cold Atom Laboratory uses a high-grade vacuum chamber and a series of powerful lasers but what remains is the need to eliminate the gravity.

Currently, the CAL is on its way to International Space Station (ISS) where it will find the needed zero gravity. Once there, the CAL will begin experimenting on Bose-Einstein condensate exotic forms of matter that appear only at extremely cold temperatures.

The experiment creates a Bose-Einstein condensate inside of a vacuum chamber. That is where the cold temperature is demonstrated, clarifies Anita Sengupta, the project leader.

On Earth, these condensates can exist for up to a second before they collapse, but in space, they can exist for ten seconds or more. This will provide scientists with a better opportunity at studying them and see their working.

Former NASA scientist

Anita Sengupta, the former NASA scientist has a strong connection with India as her father is from West Bengal. She is currently a senior vice-president of Virgin Hyperloop One.

Dr Anita Sengupta is a rocket scientist and aerospace engineer who for over 20 years has been developing technologies that have enabled the exploration of Mars, asteroids and deep space. She started her career working on the launch vehicles and communications satellites at Boeing Space and Communications.

Next, her journey took her to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. At NASA her doctoral research focused on the developing the ion engines that powered the Dawn spacecraft to reach Vesta and Ceres in the main asteroid belt launched in 2006.

She was then responsible for the supersonic parachute system that was integral to the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars in 2012.


Cochin Herald

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