ISS uses AR headset to upgrade particle physics hardware

Mixed reality headsets aren’t just for playing VR games on Earth: Astronauts aboard the International Space Station use an augmented reality (AR) system based on commercial Microsoft HoloLens hardware with software built on measure. Recently, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur used a HoloLens headset to perform a hardware replacement on a very complex piece of equipment: the station’s Cold Atom Lab.

The Cold Atom Lab on the ISS is a particle physics instrument that cools atoms to near absolute zero, or minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 273 degrees Celsius), a temperature at which atoms move much slower than usual and can be studied in more detail.

NASA astronaut Megan McArthur dons a Microsoft HoloLens, a mixed reality (or augmented reality) headset, which allows her to see both the space around her as well as the digital screens in her field of vision . Nasa

This technology is complex, and therefore maintaining the instrument or replacing parts requires careful instructions sent to the ISS crew from Earth. With the mixed reality headset, astronaut Megan McArthur could see an overlay of text and information when looking at hardware like cables. And the team on Earth could even use an arrow in their vision to point to particular cables they needed to unplug.

“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 accomplish,” said said Kamal Oudrhiri, of the Cold Atom Lab project. director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement. “This activity was a perfect demonstration of how Cold Atom Lab and quantum science can leverage mixed reality technology.”

With the replacement hardware, the instrument now has a new capability: to produce ultracold potassium atoms. The Cold Atom Lab team on the ground says this means it can be used in a whole variety of new particle physics experiments.

“This repair activity also allows the study of potassium gases in Cold Atom Lab, which will allow scientists to perform dozens of new experiments in quantum chemistry and fundamental physics using multi-species gases where atoms interact with each other in interesting ways at the ultra-low temperatures only achievable in microgravity,” said Cold Atom Lab project scientist Jason Williams.

“Our goal is for Cold Atom Lab to become an evolving science facility so that we can quickly leverage our research and work with astronauts to add new hardware capabilities without needing to build and launch new facilities at each stage of the path.”

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