NASA’s About to Ship an Atomic Clock Into Orbit, And It will Revolutionise Area Journey

NASA's About to Ship an Atomic Clock Into Orbit, And It will Revolutionise Area Journey

On 24 June 2019, NASA is sending an atomic clock into area. Not simply any outdated atomic clock, both. It is as much as 50 occasions extra correct than the atomic clocks aboard GPS satellites, its precision solely altering by one second each 10 million years.


It is solely the dimensions of a toaster, but it might revolutionise deep-space journey.

It is referred to as the Deep Area Atomic Clock, and the subsequent 12 months will likely be essential to its growth, with NASA monitoring its efficiency because it orbits Earth at an altitude of 720 kilometres (447 miles) – almost twice the space from Earth because the Worldwide Area Station. It will be launched aboard SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.

Atomic clocks are the lynchpin of satellite tv for pc navigation. GPS satellites are consistently sending light-speed radio indicators transmitting the placement and time they left the satellite tv for pc. The receiver on Earth – your cell phone, as an example – measures the time delay from every satellite tv for pc, and converts this into spatial coordinates.

That is just about how spacecraft navigation works, too. Navigators right here on Earth will ship a sign to the spacecraft, and the spacecraft sends one again. As a result of the sign travels at a identified pace, the time this takes permits the space to the spacecraft to be calculated.

As you’ll be able to most likely think about, the extra correct the clock, the higher the placement knowledge. That is the place the atomic clock is available in.

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Most clocks and watches now are primarily based on a quartz oscillator. As a result of quartz crystals vibrate at a daily frequency when a small electrical present is utilized, they can be utilized as the idea for preserving time. That is completely superb for our day-to-day timekeeping functions, however over time these quartz oscillators lose accuracy.

After simply six weeks, they are often off by as a lot as a millisecond, or a thousandth of a second. That won’t sound like a lot, but when we have been counting on it for area navigation, that tiny break up second might imply a distance error of 300 kilometres.

Atomic clocks, then again, are primarily based on the oscillations of trapped excited atoms, which tick forwards and backwards. And so they’re extremely exact. Essentially the most correct atomic clocks ever made would not acquire or lose a second for billions of years.

These are fairly giant objects, and wouldn’t be appropriate for sending to area. The atomic clocks on satellites use caesium and rubidium atoms, and whereas they are much extra correct than a quartz oscillator, they nonetheless drift, and ground-based corrections should be made twice a day from refrigerator-sized atomic clocks on Earth.

The Deep Area Atomic Clock relies on electrically charged mercury atoms, fewer than will be present in two cans of tuna, contained in an electromagnetic lure. When excited, these charged atoms, or ions, oscillate, producing optical “ticks”.


Though we have had atomic clocks for the reason that 1950s, mercury ion atomic clocks have solely been developed within the final 20 years, however they’re already exhibiting promise for finer precision.

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The Deep Area Atomic Clock is, NASA says, as much as 50 occasions extra correct than the caesium and rubidium oscillators at present in orbit. It is as steady because the ground-based atomic clocks on which their navigation is calculated.

Which means that, somewhat than the two-way sign system at present in use, the Deep Area Atomic Clock may very well be used to carry out monitoring calculations proper there on-board the spacecraft, after receipt of a sign from Earth.

atomic clock demoA demo unit of the Deep Area Atomic Clock. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

That one-way monitoring would imply sooner, extra versatile navigation, with minimal enter from Earth – leading to sooner response occasions to sudden occasions, extra adroit course corrections, a spacecraft that may adapt on the fly, so to talk.

In flip, this may lighten the load on NASA’s Deep Area Community of radio telescopes, permitting it to handle many space-faring vessels concurrently as they discover the Photo voltaic System, with out the necessity for growth.

It might change the best way we sail the celebs.


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