By Published: Jan. 10, 2022

Physics grad talks astronauts through installation and upgrades of ultracold experimental laboratory based on CU Boulder research

More than halfway toward finishing a computer science degree, James Kellogg had an epiphany. He realized he didn’t really want a career in computer programming.

A self-professed “space nerd,” Kellogg had long been intrigued by the possibility of working at NASA and studying astrophysics.

Before upending his school career, he took a couple of years off to consider his options. During that time, he tried to ski as much as possible, which brought him to Colorado. And to CU Boulder. The opportunity to jump into space sciences seemed to present itself.

His decision made, Kellogg enrolled at CU Boulder and majored in physics with an astrophysics minor, graduating cum laude in 2000. He went on to earn a master’s degree in physics at the University of California at Irvine.

James Kellogg

At the top of the page: James Kellogg and other NASA scientists working on integrating their instrument into the Cygnus vehicle that was launched to ISS. Above: Kellogg during crew operations, where he works with astronauts.

Kellogg now works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, his dream job. His specialty is lasers and optics, but his responsibilities are wide ranging. He has extensive experience in the development of cold atom physics systems, the fastest growing area of quantum physics, and is the lead scientist for the integration of the Cold Atom Lab into launch vehicles and the International Space Station (ISS).

“I make sure our instrument and many other support items get on the rockets to ISS,” he said. “We send up support hardware rather often. I’m sending up a spare computer card this month on SpaceX-24 and integrating it into our instrument on the space station. I put together the crew procedures with folks from MSFC (Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama). When the astronauts work on our instrument, I’m the one talking to them, walking them through the whole process.”

Kellogg helped design and build the Cold Atom Lab, an instrument based on pioneering science conducted at CU Boulder and the National Institute for Standards and Technology that created the Bose-Einstein condensate, for which CU physicists Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman received the Nobel Prize in physics in 2001.

In 2018, JPL scientists created a Bose-Einstein condensate, which is a fifth state of matter (the other four states are solids, liquids, gases and plasmas), for the first time in space aboard the space station, making it the first quantum science facility in Earth orbit. This allows them to perform science experiments on matter at ultracold temperatures—below 100 pico-Kelvin—where atoms lose their individuality and behave as a single quantum mechanical entity.

“There were a tremendous number of details to resolve in order to get the Cold Atom Lab onto the space station,” Kellogg said. “We had to make sure it could handle the vibrations and temperatures of launch. To protect astronauts and other sensitive instruments on ISS from gasses potentially being released by our instrument, we used special low-offgassing materials or baked off items ahead of time to get rid of any volatile organic compounds,” Kellogg said, adding:

“We located our instrument near the center of gravity of ISS where the station is most stable. With most space missions, you also have to address the vacuum and temperature extremes of space, but inside the space station it’s always a comfortable temperature, so at least that wasn’t a concern for us outside of the moderate temperature swings inside of the launch vehicle.”

It’s far-out science. ... When you get matter that cold, you can really start exploring this unusual realm of quantum physics."

The Cold Atom Lab takes advantage of the principle that cooling atoms causes them to move more slowly, which makes it easier to study them. At temperatures near absolute zero, atoms behave in unusual ways. At these ultra-cold temperatures, near minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit, atoms begin to lose their individuality and distinctness from one another. They spatially overlap each other and act more amorphous and cloud-like instead of behaving as individual particles.

“It’s far-out science,” Kellogg said. “When you get matter that cold, you can really start exploring this unusual realm of quantum physics.”

“In terrestrial-based facilities, most researchers get only a few tens to hundreds of milliseconds to do science with the atoms,” Kellogg added. “At JPL we had a chamber where we launched atoms up into a vacuum tube to give us more time to do experiments with them. That gave us about a quarter second of time to observe quantum behavior.”

In the space station’s Cold Atom Lab, researchers trap rubidium and potassium atoms and hold them in place using laser fields combined with magnetic fields. When the atoms are released, the cloud they form will slowly expand, but the atoms don’t immediately fall away, giving researchers upwards of 10 seconds to study the Bose-Einstein condensates that have been created.

Thermal testing at NASA

Kellogg during NASA's thermal testing to ensure our instrument can handle possible temperature swings during launch and cruise to ISS.

“We have five teams of researchers from around the world doing science on this instrument, including three Nobel laureates. The quest for knowledge about the universe starts off as pure science, but eventually becomes the basis for real-world applications. Right now, we’re mostly pursuing theoretical knowledge. We don’t yet know where it will lead, but the scientific community will benefit initially, and likely will be followed by real world applications that are limited mostly by our imagination.”

While an undergrad at CU Boulder, Kellogg took advantage of the many opportunities to learn and make connections. One such opportunity came when he and his advisor were granted time on the Hubble Space Telescope as part of Kellogg’s honors thesis. This led to many hours of data analysis on the Hubble images, and ultimately publishing a paper and presenting at a conference.

Kellogg’s advice for job-hunting students is to step out there and make connections.

“Get to know your professors,” he advised. “Especially professors who are doing research that you want to do. Work in their labs. Work on a thesis with a professor. That also gets you a closer experience. I think you can get better reference letters that way. In other words, this isn’t ‘just somebody I took a class with.’ It’s somebody I spent a couple of years working in a lab with.”

Kellogg stresses the importance of developing personal relationships. For example, while riding the elevator one day at UC Irvine, Kellogg struck up a conversation with another physics student and learned that her husband worked for JPL. At the time, JPL was looking to hire a researcher in the quantum sciences group. Kellogg met the student’s husband and was able to wrangle an interview to see if the position would be a good fit.

“There are so many résumés out there, companies get inundated,” Kellogg said. “But if you get to know someone, they get to know you and your work ethic, and you can find a good fit. I tried to go through the front door at career fairs, but by chance talking to someone in an elevator and by pursuing that lead I was able to get an interview. What are the odds of that actually leading to anything? You have to be open.”