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Cold Atom Lab aboard ISS gets Quantum Observer Module

By Dan O'Shea posted 07 Aug 2023

NASA’s Cold Atom Lab aboard the International Space Station is getting a quantum upgrade with the deployment of new hardware described by NASA as a Quantum Observer Module.

The hardware upgrade was taken to the space station this week on a Northrop Grumman supply craft, and a space station crew member will install the module this fall, according to a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

“The experiments we’re performing on the Cold Atom Lab will someday allow us to measure gravity with unprecedented precision, and that’s an extremely valuable tool to have in space,” said Jason Williams, Cold Atom Lab project scientist at JPL.

Quantum sensors have been positioned as tools that can provide better, more accurate measurements of gravity, which could help scientists probe the composition of different worlds from orbit or track the movement of water on Earth, JPL said. Measuring gravity also lets scientists measure the acceleration of a spacecraft, which could be used in precision space navigation. In addition, quantum sensors could be used in space-based missions studying cosmological mysteries like dark matter and dark energy. 

The Cold Atom Lab makes it easier to study the quantum behaviors of atoms. One way is by chilling atoms, making them move more slowly and easier to study. In addition, some atoms at temperatures near absolute zero can collectively form a Bose-Einstein Condensate, a state of matter wherein their quantum behaviors, which are typically microscopic, can be observed on a macroscopic scale, JPL stated.

The Cold Atom Lab upgrade will produce two to three times more atoms for each experiment inside the facility, roughly analogous to upgrading to a telescope with higher resolution, according to Williams.

Kamal Oudrhiri, the project manager for Cold Atom Lab at JPL, added, “We hope that Cold Atom Lab will mark the start of an era where quantum tools are used regularly in space. Because of Cold Atom Lab, we’ve shown that these delicate quantum tools are reliable and even upgradable in space. It’s our hope that Cold Atom Lab will be just the first of many quantum space missions to come.”

Dan O’Shea has covered telecommunications and related topics including semiconductors, sensors, retail systems, digital payments and quantum computing/technology for over 25 years.

Categories: quantum computing

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