Mon. Nov 29th, 2021

Upgrading the space station's cold atomic laboratory with mixed reality

NASA astronaut Megan McArthur is wearing a Microsoft HoloLens, a mixed reality (or augmented reality) headset, which allows her to see both the space around her and digital screens in her field of vision. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Cold Atom Lab is a first of its kind physics laboratory operating in orbit around the Earth. Approximately the size of a mini-refrigerator, it hosts several experiments that explore the basic nature of atoms by cooling them down to almost absolute zero (the coldest temperature matter can reach). The ultra-cold atoms provide a window into the quantum realm where matter exhibits strange behaviors that support 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 the Cold Atom Lab. In addition to adding new capabilities to the new facility, the effort proved something else: that such maintenance could be performed without the need to drag the laboratory back to Earth.

Plans are underway for a number of further upgrades to the Cold Atom Lab in the coming years, so the mission team is exploring ways to make these activities more efficient. Earlier this summer, they successfully tested a new tool that could help with this goal: a Microsoft HoloLens, a mixed reality headset (also known as augmented reality or AR). On July 15, astronaut Megan McArthur used the AR headset while replacing a piece of hardware inside the Cold Atom Lab, which allowed the plant to produce ultra-cold potassium atoms in addition to the rubidium atoms that have been used since the plant began operating. in 2018.

Mixed reality headsets such as HoloLens look like enveloping sunglasses, and unlike virtual reality headsets (which produce a completely virtual setting), HoloLens have transparent lenses that blend the virtual and the real world together. This allowed McArthur to see the area around her, and a small forward-facing camera on the headset allowed members of the Cold Atom Lab team to view large screens in the Earth Orbiting Missions Operations Center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. . see what she was looking at. In contrast, during the 2020 activity with Christina Koch, the team could only watch a live video feed from a fixed camera located behind or above the astronaut, leaving their view of the hardware mostly hidden.

McArthur could also see virtual graphic annotations, such as text and arrows, placed in her field of view by the Cold Atom Labs operations team. For example, when she looked at a series of cables, the mission team could place an arrow in her field of vision that pointed to the specific cable she was going to pull the plug on. Even if she had to move her head away and back again, the arrow would remain pointing to the same cable location.

Virtual reality headsets have been used for various applications on board the space station, and mixed reality has been used in a few cases. But usually the goal of these activities is to make it easier for an astronaut to perform a task alone. The Cold Atom Lab hardware replacement activity marked the first use of a mixed reality headset to enhance the live interaction between an astronaut and engineers on Earth; it also marked the first use of mixed reality to repair a scientific experiment at the station. Preparation for the activity took six months of collaboration between NASA’s 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 exciting, but because it can provide additional opportunities for these complex tasks that we depend on astronauts to perform,” said Kamal Oudrhiri, Cold. Atom Labs project manager at JPL. “This activity was a perfect demonstration of how Cold Atom Lab and quantum science can benefit from mixed reality technology.”

NASA’s Cold Atom Lab – a quantum physical facility aboard the International Space Station – hosts several experiments that explore the fundamental nature of atoms by cooling them down to almost absolute zero (the coldest temperature matter can reach). Earlier this year, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur tested the use of a mixed reality headset (a Microsoft HoloLens) to help keep the experiment at the forefront. Credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Quantum mechanics

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

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

In the microgravity environment, scientists can make atoms colder and study them for longer than on Earth. This opens up opportunities for research that is not available on earth. By making Cold Atom Lab upgradeable, team members can add new tools and options as their research progresses, allowing them to seek answers to new questions and perform increasingly complex and effective experiments.

“This repair activity also makes it possible to study potassium gases in the Cold Atom Lab, which will allow scientists to perform dozens of new experiments in quantum chemistry and fundamental physics using multi-species gases in which the atoms interact with each other in interesting ways. at ultra-low temperatures that can only be achieved in microgravity, “said Jason Williams, Cold Atom Labs project researcher. “Our goal is for Cold Atom Lab to become a scientific facility in development so we can quickly build on our research and work with astronauts to add new hardware features without the need to build and launch new facilities every step of the way. “

A hardware upgrade on a facility such as Cold Atom Lab will normally only be performed by someone who is familiar with the hardware, as a bug step during the process may affect the ability of Cold Atom Labs to function. McArthur had to work around delicate, tightly packed internal components, including more than a dozen electronic cards, a maze of wires and cables, and an orchestra of fine-tuned lasers used to cool atoms down to almost absolute zero inside a sealed vacuum chamber while they are infrared cameras observing them.

Future upgrades to the Cold Atom Lab will also involve real-time interactions between astronauts on the station and team members on Earth. That’s why this mixed use trial was so inspiring for the team.

“A mission like this requires a lot of real-time guidance with an expert on Earth, and this is where HoloLens can be very useful,” said Jim Kellogg, head of rocket and space station integration for Cold Atom Lab at JPL, which manages the mission.

A warm space station welcome to cool new hardware

Provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Citation: Upgrading the space station’s Cold Atom Lab with mixed reality (2021, October 27) retrieved October 27, 2021 from

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