Spacecrafts that travel farther than the Earth's moon primarily rely on communications with its appropriate ground stations to know where they are located and where they will go next.
To enhance the communication between spacecraft and ground stations, NASA plans to develop its Deep Space Atomic Clock to give far-flung astronauts better autonomy when navigating through space.
Improving Consistent Measure of Time
SciTech Daily reported that NASA's mission is experiencing significant progress in its task to improve space-based atomic clocks' ability to measure time consistently over more extended periods.
It is commonly known as stability, and it is a feature that has a significant impact on the operation of a spacecraft's GPS satellites. It helps us navigate on Earth, and it also works as a potential solution to increase the autonomy of future GPS spacecraft.
The reason behind the GPS spacecraft is simple, but engineers need to send signals from each spacecraft to Earth and then back to give you a context. It is done to calculate the specific trajectory that a distant spacecraft has.
Engineers utilize atomic clocks the size of a refrigerator on the ground as a way to log the exact timing of each signal -- an essential process used to measure the spacecraft's position as precisely as possible.
However, spacecraft on Mars and other vehicles farther than the Red Planet typically wait between ten minutes and even hours to get the signal to make the trip.
However, spacecraft could start calculating their directions and positions once they carry atomic clocks -- but the watches need to be highly stable.
GPS satellites typically have atomic clocks that help them get to their destinations on Earth, but the said clocks need constant updates every day to maintain their stability. And obviously, deep space missions would need better stable space-based clocks than average.
What is the Deep Space Atomic Clock?
According to the report, Deep Space Atomic Clock is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory based in South California. The clock has been operating throughout General Atomic's Orbital Test Bed spacecraft starting in June 2019.
The mission team has already set a record for long-term atomic clock stability. It reached over ten times more than the stability of the current space-based atomic clocks, including devices on GPS satellites.
Why Does Every Second Count?
Every atomic clock has certain degrees of instability, which affects the clock's time against the actual time. If the error is not corrected, the offset will increase rapidly. When it comes to spacecraft navigation, even a slight discrepancy could result in drastic effects.
One of the primary goals of the Deep Space Atomic Clock mission was to measure how stable the clock is over more extended periods to identify whether it would change with time or not.
SciTech Daily reported that the clock's stability leads to less than four nanoseconds of time deviation right after over 20 days of operation.
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Written by Fran Sanders