NASA Has Activated Its GPS-like Deep Space Atomic Clock

The Deep Space Atomic Clock is a prototype technology that can be used as a 'space GPS' for future explorers.
Chris Young

NASA has just confirmed that the activation of Deep Space Atomic Clock. This is testing technology that could allow for autonomous deep space travel.

In other words, no Earth signals would be needed for future space explorers to determine their positions.


Space GPS

The Deep Space Atomic Clock was launched in June of this year on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, which was also carrying 24 satellites.

The technology, which will be tested over the coming months, will be used as a type of GPS for future space explorers.

GPS systems on Earth use incredibly precise atomic clocks to measure the time it takes for a signal to reach them, in order to provide a precise location. This system is also currently being used for space travel - the trouble is that the further away one travels from Earth, the longer it takes the signal to arrive.

This means that if space travelers continue to rely on atomic clocks on Earth when humans go to Mars, it will take up to 40 minutes for the explorers to find out their precise locations.

What's more, atomic clocks need to function extremely precisely, even in space conditions - an error of only one second over huge space distances, for example, could mean space explorers can miss a planet by thousands of miles.

Atomic clock space tests

This is where the Deep Space Atomic Clock comes in. The GPS-like space technology, which is already in space, has been activated for testing.

"The goal of the space experiment is to put the Deep Space Atomic Clock in the context of an operating spacecraft - complete with the things that affect the stability and accuracy of a clock - and see if it performs at the level we think it will: with orders of magnitude mortability than existing space clocks," navigator Todd Ely, principal investigator of the project at JPL said in a NASA statement.

NASA Has Activated Its GPS-like Deep Space Atomic Clock
The Deep Space Atomic Clock back on Earth. Source: General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems 

According to NASA's statement, the Deep Space Atomic Clock is up to 50 times more stable than the atomic clocks closer to Earth on GPS satellites.

Incredibly, Deep Space Atomic Clock, which utilizes mercury-ion for its extremely precise readings, loses only one second every 10 million years, as proven in controlled tests on Earth.

Over the next few months, the team will measure how accurately the clock keeps the time down to the closest nanosecond. The tests will hopefully lead to a future in which explorers can safely navigate deep space.

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