NASA is about to test a technology that could one day help astronauts navigate and communicate in deep space without much assistance from Earth.
Later this month, the Deep Space Atomic Clock will be launched onboard SpaceX's Falcon Heavy. The ultra-precise technology, which is about the size of a toaster, will be placed into low orbit for one year to test if it will be able to help spacecraft locate themselves navigate autonomously.
Navigating In Space
NASA spacecraft currently exploring deep space rely on navigators on Earth to tell them where they are and where they should go. Because atomic clocks on GPS satellites are not accurate enough to send directions, NASA's navigators use giant antennas on Earth to communicate with a spacecraft.
However, spacecraft sent farther into deep space will have to deal with long delays in between commands. Navigators have to calculate the time it takes for the signal arrives in Earth to determine the location of the spacecraft and then tell it where to go next. Depending on the distance between planets, the delay can take from a few minutes to several hours.
While it works, the present method of navigation poses a problem for future crewed missions to another planet.
"Having a clock onboard would enable onboard radio navigation and, when combined with optical navigation, make for a more accurate and safe way for astronauts to be able to navigate themselves," explained Todd Ely, the principal investigator behind the Deep Space Atomic Clock.
The Deep Space Atomic Clock is the first GPS-like technology that is small and stable enough to be utilized on a spacecraft. The Deep Space Network antennas could also broadcast one signal to space, communicating with multiple missions at any given time instead of having to ping each spacecraft one by one.
NASA said that one day, multiple spacecraft with the technology onboard can orbit Mars, creating a network that can give directions to rovers and humans on the surface of the Red Planet.
"The Deep Space Atomic Clock will have the ability to aid in navigation, not just locally but in other planets as well," stated Eric Burt, the ion clock development lead.
The Falcon Heavy's next mission is scheduled on Monday, June 24. It will launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The Deep Space Atomic Clock, if successful, can fly in a mission in the 2030s.