NASA Activates Deep Space Atomic Clock

An atomic clock that could pave the way for autonomous deep space travel was successfully activated last week and is ready to begin its year-long tech demo, the mission team confirmed on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. Launched in June, NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock is a critical step toward enabling spacecraft to safely navigate themselves in deep space rather than rely on the time-consuming process of receiving directions from Earth.

Developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the clock is the first timekeeper stable enough to map a spacecraft’s trajectory in deep space while being small enough to fly onboard the spacecraft. A more stable clock can operate farther from Earth, where it needs to work well for longer periods than satellites closer to home.

Atomic clocks, like those used in GPS satellites, are used to measure the distance between objects by timing how long it takes a signal to travel from Point A to Point B. For space exploration, atomic clocks must be extremely precise: an error of even one second means the difference between landing on a planet like Mars or missing it by hundreds of thousands of miles. Up to 50 times more stable than the atomic clocks on GPS satellites, the mercury-ion Deep Space Atomic Clock loses one second every 10 million years, as proven in controlled tests on Earth. Now it will test that accuracy in space.

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