In June 2019, NASA launched a deep space atomic clock (DSAC) in space, that can revolutionize the technology to navigate our spacecraft for our future space missions. The toaster oven sized instrument was tested in earth orbit for one whole year and it has outperformed the previously used space clocks and is very agreeable to space environment. An article in Nature has been published last week reporting its performance.
NASA has decided to test DSAC on a mission to Venus. NASA has recently selected the following two missions to Venus,
DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging)
VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy)
VERITAS will host the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2. Highly accurate clock signal generated through DSAC will ultimately help to enable autonomous spacecraft maneuvers and enhance radio science observations.
What is an atomic clock and how does it work?
An atomic clock is the most accurate timekeeping device; it is based on interaction of EM radiation with excited states of atoms. The ground based atomic clocks use very precise and stable frequencies of specific atoms to regulate the time. These ground based atomic clocks are highly stable for over decades. But, these designs are very bulky and need huge power, so they can’t be sent in space missions.
To navigate the solar system through GPS today, space probes receive signals from antennas on Earth and then send those signals back (a two way traffic). Highly accurate, atomic clocks on the ground measure that two-way time (which can take hours) to pinpoint a spacecraft’s location. GPS satellites carry atomic clocks to help us get to our destinations on Earth, but these GPS clocks require updates several times a day to maintain the stability. Future deep space missions would require ultra stable space-based clocks. DSAC could simply measure and calculate how long it a signal takes from Earth to arrive and calculate its own position (one way traffic).
NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock is a revolutionary step towards enabling spacecraft to safely and independently navigate through the deep space rather than relying on the time-consuming process of waiting to receive directions from the Earth. The Deep Space Atomic Clock will enable for a change to a more efficient, and scalable clock design that will revolutionize future navigation and radio science.
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