Archive | February 2014

Space Station Instrument Will Be the Coldest Thing in the Universe


The International Space Station is set to become the coldest place in the known universe. Credit: NASA

When temperatures fall to record lows, some hardy folks like to boast that they went about their daily tasks unfazed by the wind chill warnings. Well, if sub-zero bragging rights are at stake, the International Space Station will soon have the entire universe beat.

In 2016, a new instrument due to be added to the ISS — NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory — will become the coldest location in the known universe. The instrument is capable of achieving a temperature of 100 Pico-kelvin, or one ten-billionth of a degree above absolute zero. For perspective, the average temperature of space is a balmy 2.7 Kelvin, or -454.81 degrees Fahrenheit.

At these extremely low temperatures, ordinary concepts of solid, liquid and gas are irrelevant. Matter can be in two places at once, objects behave simultaneously as particles and waves, and nothing is certain.


Cool Science

The temperature isn’t the only thing that’s cool about the Cold Atom Lab. Scientists will use the instrument to study the behavior of a strange form of matter known as Bose-Einstein condensates. Bose-Einstein condensates occur when atoms get so cold — near absolute zero — that they coalesce into a single wave of matter.

Diagram of the Cold Atom Lab. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech

Diagram of the Cold Atom Lab. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech

The Cold Atom Lab has one big advantage over Earth: microgravity. Earthbound cooling chambers need to use a lot of energy and powerful magnets to counteract the forces of Earth’s gravity in order to hold a molecule in place for observation. As a result, they can only observe molecular behavior for a second at a time and cannot achieve 100 pico-Kelvin temperatures. Without gravity, and with the aid of magnetic traps, scientists on the ISS can observe molecular behavior for up to 20 seconds at a clip, and drop the temperature closer to absolute zero.

Scientists on the ISS plan to mix two Bose-Einstein condensates together, and no one is really sure what will happen in a hyper-cold, microgravity environment.

If scientists can drop the temperature low enough in the Cold Atom Lab, they’ll be able to assemble atomic wave packets as wide as a human hair — large enough for the human eye to see.

Applications on Earth

A deeper understanding of Bose-Einstein condensates could lead to important technological innovation. Studying this unique state of matter has already yielded new laser and optical physics, such as an atom laser, which promise to improve electronic chip and circuit construction.

And maybe, just maybe, in its spare time the super-cooled chamber can turn its research efforts toward developing an even more futuristic “ice cream of the future.” Astronauts, we’re counting on you.


Oldest Human Footprints Outside of Africa Found

Researchers discovered the oldest human footprints outside of Africa in Britain.

View of footprint surface looking north. Credit: Simon Parfitt

Citizens of Britain can now trace their origins several large steps backward in time. Archaeologists recently discovered the oldest set of human footprints outside of Africa along the eastern coast of Britain.

Rough seas last summer in the village of Happisburgh, Norfolk, washed away portions of the shore revealing a set of about 50 footprints. Researchers estimate the prints are between 800,000 and 1 million years old, which is now the oldest evidence of early humans ever found in northern Europe.

Footprints’ History

Due to the various sizes of footprints, researchers believe a mixed group of at least five adults and juveniles were walking along mudflats of what was then the Thames River estuary. Based on the size of the prints, researchers believe the group was related to Homo antecessor, or “Pioneer Man,” which died off some 800,000 years ago. The group was likely scouting the area for food, and could have been related.

Researchers found 50 footprints from a group of five adults and juveniles.

Researchers found 50 footprints from a group of five adults and juveniles.

Prior to the Norfolk find, the oldest human remains found in Britain were a set of tools dating back 700,000 years. Older human evidence tends to be found in southern Europe where researchers, for example, have unearthed 780,000-year-old skull fragments in southern Spain.

The Norfolk find sheds new light on the tenacity and adaptability of northern Europe’s earliest human ancestors, Chris Stringer, an archaeologist with the project, told theAssociated Press:

“This makes us rethink our feelings about the capacity of these early people, that they were coping with conditions somewhat colder than the present day,” he said. “Maybe they had cultural adaptations to the cold we hadn’t even thought were possible 900,000 years ago. Did they wear clothing? Did they make shelters, windbreaks and so on? Could they have the use of fire that far back?”

A Rare Find

The discovery is significant to our understanding of human origins, but it’s also incredibly lucky. Finding preserved footsteps is difficult, given the punishing forces of erosion along seacoasts. Previously, the record for the oldest set of footprints in Britain was 7,500 years old, which pales in comparison to the Norfolk find. The Norfolk team called the Happisburgh prints a “one in a million” find.

Fortunately, archaeologists captured plenty of photographic evidence to study Britain’s oldest footprints in May 2013, because what the sea gives it also takes away. Most of the ancient footprints have already disappeared due to erosion. However, researchers are optimistic that the same forces could someday unveil new evidence, as well.