Particle physics laboratory

Space Station Cold Atom Physics Lab Upgrade to Mixed Reality

NASA Cold Atoms Laboratory. Credit: NASA

">Nasa is investigating whether mixed reality technology could help with repairs and upgrades to the state-of-the-art Cold Atom lab aboard the space station.

NASA’s Cold Atom Lab is a unique physics laboratory operating in Earth orbit. About the size of a mini-fridge, it hosts multiple experiments that explore the fundamental nature of atoms by cooling them to nearly absolute zero (the coldest temperature that the material can reach). Ultra-cold atoms open a window into the quantum realm, where matter exhibits strange behaviors that underpin many modern technologies.

In 2020, during her extended stay aboard the space station, NASA astronaut Christina Koch worked with members of the Earth-based mission team to install upgraded hardware in Cold Atom Lab. As well as adding new capabilities to the new facility, the effort proved something else: that such maintenance could be performed without the need to bring the lab back to Earth.

NASA’s Cold Atom Lab – a quantum physics facility aboard the International Space Station – hosts several experiments that explore the fundamental nature of atoms by cooling them almost to absolute zero (the coldest temperature matter can to reach). Earlier this year, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur tested the use of a mixed reality headset (a Microsoft HoloLens) to help keep the experience state-of-the-art.

Plans are underway for a series of additional Cold Atom Lab upgrades in the coming years. The mission team is therefore exploring ways to make these activities more effective. Earlier this summer, they successfully tested a new tool that could help achieve that goal: a Microsoft HoloLens, a mixed reality headset (also known as augmented reality or AR). July 15, the astronaut Megan McArthur used the AR headset while it replaced a piece of hardware inside the Cold Atom Lab, allowing the facility to produce ultra-cold potassium atoms in addition to the rubidium atoms that have been used since the facility began operating in 2018.

Mixed reality headsets like the HoloLens look like wraparound sunglasses, and unlike virtual reality headsets (which produce a fully virtual frame), the HoloLens has transparent lenses that blend the virtual and real worlds. This allowed McArthur to see the area around her, and a small forward-facing camera on the helmet allowed members of the Cold Atom Lab team, watching on large screens in the Earth Orbiting Missions Operations Center. from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, to see what she was looking at. In contrast, during the 2020 activity with Christina Koch, the team was only able to see a live video feed from a fixed camera positioned behind or above the astronaut, leaving his view on mostly obscured material.

McArthur was also able to see virtual graphic annotations, such as text and arrows, placed in his field of view by the operations team at Cold Atom Lab. For example, while looking at a series of cables, the mission team could place an arrow in their field of view, pointing to the specific cable they needed to unplug. Even if she pulled her head away and back, the arrow would still point to the same spot on the wire.

NASA Astronaut Megan McArthur Microsoft HoloLens

NASA astronaut Megan McArthur wears a Microsoft HoloLens, a mixed reality (or augmented reality) headset, which allows her to see both the space around her as well as digital displays in her field of view. Credit: NASA

Virtual reality headsets have been used for various applications aboard the space station, and mixed reality has been used in a few cases. But generally, the purpose of these activities is to make it easier for an astronaut to accomplish a task alone. Cold Atom Lab’s hardware replacement activity marked the first use of a mixed reality headset to enhance live interaction between an astronaut and engineers on Earth; it also marked the first use of mixed reality to repair a science experiment on the station. The preparation for the activity lasted six months, with a collaboration between NASA JPL, Johnson Space Center in Houston and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“Cold Atom Lab is investing in the use of this technology on the space station not only because it is intriguing, but because it could provide additional capabilities for those complex tasks that we rely on astronauts to perform,” said said Kamal Oudrhiri, of the Cold Atom Lab project. director at JPL. “This activity was a perfect demonstration of how Cold Atom Lab and quantum science can take advantage of mixed reality technology. “

Quantum mechanics

Quantum science has revealed many non-intuitive characteristics of the physical world, such as the fact that atoms behave both like solid objects and like waves. Some of these discoveries have led to the development of technologies that many of us use on a daily basis, such as transistors and microchips.

Cold Atom Lab is the first quantum science facility in Earth orbit. Cooling atoms makes them move more slowly, making them easier to study. And ultracold atoms can also form a fifth state of matter, called Bose-Einstein condensate, which displays typically microscopic quantum characteristics on a macroscopic scale.

In the microgravity environment, scientists can cool atoms and study them longer than on Earth. This opens up avenues of research that are not accessible in the field. By making Cold Atom Lab scalable, team members can add new tools and capabilities as their research progresses, so they can seek answers to new questions and conduct research experiments. more and more complex and impactful.

“This repair activity also allows the study of potassium gases in the Cold Atom Lab, which will allow scientists to perform dozens of new experiments in quantum chemistry and fundamental physics using multispecies gases where atoms interact with each other. with each other in interesting ways at ultra-low temperatures only achievable in microgravity, “said Jason Williams, scientist of the Cold Atom Lab project.” Our goal is for Cold Atom Lab to become an evolving science facility so that we can quickly build on our research and work with astronauts to add new material capabilities without needing to build and launch new facilities every step of the way. ”

A hardware upgrade on a facility like Cold Atom Lab would normally only be done by someone intimately familiar with the hardware, as a misstep in the process could affect Cold Atom Lab’s ability to operate. McArthur had to work around delicate and tightly packaged interior components, including more than a dozen electronic boards, a maze of wires and cables, and an orchestra of finely tuned lasers used to cool atoms down to almost absolute zero. inside a sealed vacuum chamber as infrared cameras observe them.

Future Cold Atom Lab upgrades will also involve real-time interactions between the station’s astronauts and members of the ground crew. This is why this trial using mixed reality was so inspiring for the team.

“A task like this requires a lot of real-time guidance with an expert in the field, and this is where HoloLens could be of great help,” said Jim Kellogg, Launcher and Station Integration Manager. space for Cold Atom Lab at JPL, which manages the mission.

Learn more about the mission

Designed and built at JPL, Cold Atom Lab is sponsored by the Biological and Physical Sciences Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.


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