NASA activates deep space atomic clock

A critical step toward enabling spacecraft to safely navigate themselves in deep space.


Last week, NASA activated an atomic clock that could pave the way for autonomous deep space travel. Launched in June, NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock is a critical step toward enabling shuttle to safely explore themselves in deep space rather than depending on the tedious procedure of receiving directions from Earth.

Created at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the clock is the first timekeeper stable enough to map probe’s direction in deep space while being small enough to fly onboard the spacecraft.

Atomic clocks, similar to those utilized in GPS satellites, are utilized to quantify the distance between objects by timing how long it takes a sign to head out from Point A to Point B. For space investigation, atomic clocks must be very exact: an error of even one second implies the distinction between arriving on a planet like Mars or missing it by a huge number of miles.

Currently, atomic clocks of a refrigerator-size being used on Earth spot spacecraft’s location. It takes several minutes to hours to send the signal from Earth to the probe.

A clock aboard a spacecraft would allow the spacecraft to calculate its own trajectory, instead of waiting for navigators on Earth to send that information. This advancement would free missions to travel farther and, eventually, carry humans safely to other planets.

Todd Ely, principal investigator of the project at JPL said, “The goal of the space experiment is to put the Deep Space Atomic Clock in the context of an operating spacecraft — complete with the things that affect the stability and accuracy of a clock — and see if it performs at the level we think it will: with orders of magnitude more stable than existing space clocks.”

Soon, scientists will measure how well the clock keeps the time down to the nanosecond. The results begin the countdown to a day when technology can safely help astronauts navigate themselves to other worlds.

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