What Is Constellation’s CAL Experiment?

In Constellation’s first episode, a NASA astronaut carries out an experiment on the ISS’s Cold Atomic Laboratory – or CAL, a real instrument launched on board the ISS in 2018. The CAL is used to study the behaviour of particles in extremely cold microgravity conditions. As this 2023 paper in science publication Nature explains, the ultracold temperatures amplify quantum effects and allow for longer interactions time with gravity “the final force without a quantum theory”.

In the show, Jo tells her young daughter Alice via Facetime that the CAL experiment is “looking for a new form of matter”. Later on in episode three, Alice is told a little more by Jonathan Banks’ character Caldera, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and astronaut who designed the experiment:

“For a long time, the way that we understood the world was governed by what is called Classical Physics. It is a basic way of measuring and predicting things. Then along came people, people like Albert Einstein. Have you heard of him? He started to look into really small things like atoms, subatomic particles, waveforms, and it began to look like Classical Physics didn’t apply anymore, which is mysterious. It’s not predictable in ways we currently understand.

“For example, the same thing can be in two different states at the same time. You can have a particle, for instance, the exact same particle, there’s a world in which that particle is black and a world in which that particle is white, and there’s a kind of point of liminal space between those worlds where the particle is black and white at the same time, and they don’t seem to want to decide which state they’ll be until someone looks at them.”

Alice tells Caldera that sounds nuts, which he grants her. It’s nuts but it’s real, he says.

Caldera has personal reasons for doggedly pursuing this quantum-state research, but his experiment is key to the story Constellation is telling. He’s attempting to determine whether in zero gravity, the same matter is able to exist simultaneously in two different states. If his experiment proves it possible for the exact same particle to be, as he says, both black and white at the same time, does that explain what Jo has experienced since returning from space? Why her previously bilingual daughter seems to no longer understand Swedish? Why the family car is blue when she swore it was once red?


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