Absolute zero: NASA lab outdoes winter 2014

Many Americans might consider this winter the ultimate crash course in all things frigid. What with record-setting snowfalls, wintry states of emergency in the Deep South, and “polar vortex” an early contender for 2014’s phrase of the year, who could possibly be interested in even lower temperatures? NASA could.

The US space agency has announced plans to build the coldest place in the known universe — a refrigerator-sized Cold Atom Lab that will enable scientists to study the effects of temperatures so low that atoms lose all their thermal energy and matter ceases to exist in its familiar forms of solid, liquid, or gas. Within the lab, which is scheduled for installation on the International Space Station in 2016, researchers intend to push temperatures down to more than 459 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, or one 10-billionth of a degree above absolute zero. By comparison, the coldest temperature ever recorded on earth, near the South Pole in 2010, was a mild 136 degrees below zero (wind-chill not included).

Of particular interest to NASA are “Bose-Einstein condensates,” a phenomenon first predicted by Albert Einstein and Satyendra Bose in the 1920s: As temperatures approach absolute zero, atoms strangely merge into a single wave of matter, and the bizarre effects of quantum mechanics — in which matter behaves like both particles and waves, and can exist simultaneously in two different places — become visible. “We’re entering the unknown,” says the project’s lead scientist. How cool is that?