NASA has officially activated an “atomic clock” that holds the possibility to better allow future astronauts to travel deeper into space with little to no reliance on Earth-bound teams.
The atomic clock in space or officially known as NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC) is a year-long mission that began on Friday. The project hopes to pave the way for autonomous spacecraft to travel far out into the cosmos.
The goal of this mission is to test the reliability and accuracy of DSAC in zero-gravity, and if it will function similar to Earth-based atomic clocks.
“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 stability than existing space clocks,” said navigator Todd Ely, principal investigator of the project at Jet Propulsion Lab, in the press release.
In general, atomic clocks are often used to measure the distance between objects by measuring the time it took from sending a signal until receiving it back.
In modern applications, GPS satellites use atomic clocks to allow people on Earth to navigate.
On the other hand, the way we approach spacecraft navigation is through a two-way communication link similar to GPS systems. However, how NASA does it is through sending a signal from the deep space network (DSN) dishes to the traveling spacecraft, which bounces the signal back to Earth.
Scientists then determine the spacecraft’s trajectory by calculating the amount of time that had accumulated before they received the signal back and what changes took place with the help of Earth-based atomic clocks. Only then can they send navigation instructions to the craft.
However, this back and forth approach can take a few minutes or even hours, which ultimately makes it an inefficient manner of navigating the cosmos.
Additionally, the amount of delay and risk of inaccuracy increases the farther a spacecraft ventures away from Earth.
For missions into deep space, atomic clocks must be extremely precise. An error of just one second could mean the difference between landing on Mars and missing it by hundreds of thousands of miles, or for it to crash into another planet, according to NASA.
Recognizing this limitation, scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory devised DSAC, which is designed to be the first atomic clock stable enough to map the trajectory of a spacecraft traveling into deep space, without relying on the help from Earth-based navigators.
Basically, a spacecraft with its own atomic clock on board could calculate its own trajectory and navigate itself through the solar system.
Uniquely, NASA’s JPL atomic clock is also the first of its kind where it is both a reliable timekeeper and small enough to try onboard a spacecraft, as compared to the one used on Earth, which are usually too big to be carried on a rocket.
Reportedly, the deep space atomic clock is also 50 times more accurate than even the best existing navigation clocks.
During tests on Earth, the Deep Space Atomic Clock was shown to lose one second every 10 million years. Now, NASA will be able to test whether this same is true in space.
Now that this atomic clock is activated, the team at JPL will measure how it keeps the time down to the nanosecond. While slight inaccuracies might not be that big of a deal for timekeeping here on Earth, even the slightest deviation or error could alter a trajectory drastically.
Scientists hope that this could be the beginning of more advanced navigation techniques on space and potentially open doors for more deep space explorations.