The government agency created atoms known as Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) for the first time in orbit to focus on their unusual quantum behavior. A team of astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) was able to take the Cold Atom Lab (CAL), which was loaded with lasers and a vacuum chamber, to understand how BECs interact with gravity.
"Having a BEC experiment operating on the space station is a dream come true," said Robert Thompson, CAL project scientist and a physicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California in a statement, announcing the milestone.
Thompson continued: "It's been a long, hard road to get here, but completely worth the struggle, because there's so much we're going to be able to do with this facility."
The scientists produced the BECs with temperatures as "as low as 100 nanoKelvin, or one ten-millionth of one Kelvin above absolute zero," NASA added, in the statement. Zero Kelvin, also known as absolute zero, is the equivalent of minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit. The average temperature of space is approximately 3 Kelvin or minus 454 degrees Fahrenheit.
Though BECs were first created in a laboratory in 1995, they were actually first predicted by physicists Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein 71 years prior. In 2001, Eric Cornell, Carl Wieman and Wolfgang Ketterle received the Nobel Prize in Physics for being the first to create and characterize BECs in a lab.
The research being conducted on the ISS could help with applications on Earth and in space, including things like improved sensors, quantum computers and atomic clocks used to navigate the far reaches of space, according to the Daily Mail.
BECs are described as a fifth state of matter, separate from gases, liquids, solids and plasma. They are only observed via microscopic quantum phenomena, but once this happens, wavefunction interference then becomes apparent.
By putting the BECs into the aforementioned temperatures, scientists hope they can get an idea of how the four fundamental forces (Gravitational Force, Weak Nuclear Force, Electromagnetic Force and Strong Nuclear Force) all work together.
So far, quantum mechanics has been able to identify how three of them work together, but the theory of general relativity explains how things work on a large scale, though the interaction of gravity, the weakest of the four but also well understood, is not a part of that.
CAL was launched in May, Fox News previously reported, designed and built in conjunction with NASA JPL. The development of CAL started in 2012 and it is set to operate through 2020.
"CAL is an extremely complicated instrument," said Robert Shotwell, chief engineer of JPL's astronomy and physics directorate. "Typically, BEC experiments involve enough equipment to fill a room and require near-constant monitoring by scientists, whereas CAL is about the size of a small refrigerator and can be operated remotely from Earth."
Shotwell continued: "It was a struggle and required significant effort to overcome all the hurdles necessary to produce the sophisticated facility that's operating on the space station today."
Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia