One small step for man … one giant leap for clocks.
The Deep Space Atomic Clock, a new technology from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket into Earth’s orbit for one year in late June, according to a latest release of JPL and reported by Xinhua.
The clock, a toaster-size device accurate to within one-ten-millionth of a second over the span of a year, is the first GPS-like instrument small and stable enough to fly on a spacecraft, the report said.
Currently, navigators tell a spacecraft where to go by calculating its position from Earth and sending the location data to space in a two-way relay system that can take anywhere from minutes to hours to deliver directions.
Weighing just 35 pounds (16 kilograms), the new technology enables a spacecraft to know where it is without needing to rely on data from Earth, according to JPL. In other words, it will change the way humans navigate the solar system.
After deploying the clock to Earth’s orbit, engineers will test whether it can help spacecraft locate themselves in space.
If the clock’s trial year in space goes well, it could pave the way for a future of one-way navigation in which astronauts are guided by a GPS-like system across the surface of the Moon or can safely fly their own missions to Mars and beyond, said JPL.
“Every spacecraft exploring deep space is steered by navigators here on Earth. Deep Space Atomic Clock will change that by enabling onboard autonomous navigation, or self-driving spacecraft,” said mission Deputy Principal Investigator Jill Seubert.
Atomic clocks are the most accurate timekeepers in the world, using the rhythmic characteristics of atoms the same way a grandfather clock uses a pendulum. Since 1967, the official definition of a second is 9,192,631,770 cycles of radiation from an atom of the element cesium.
According to Phys.Org, the DSAC proved to be up to 50 times more stable than the atomic clocks on GPS satellites in ground tests. If the mission can prove this stability in space, it will be one of the most precise clocks in the universe.
“If we get out to Mars, the crew is going to want to know where they’re at, and they will need to know it — potentially in real-time — in case they have to make last-minute course adjustments,”Todd Ely, a space navigator and leader of the DSAC experiment, told Business Insider.
“If we’re able to reproduce what we’ve seen on the ground in our testing, once DSAC is in space, it should be the most stable atomic clock in space.”
The launch on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket is targeted for June 22, at 11:30 p.m. EDT, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and will be live-streamed at www.nasa.gov/live.