NASA's New Atomic Clock Will Make Deep Space Travel Safer

NASA is set to test a new one-way navigation system using a small atomic clock.
Jessica Miley

NASA's Deep Space Atomic Clock is one surefire way spacecraft could safely and autonomously fly themselves to destinations like the Moon and Mars. 

Before the advances in the Atomic Clock, spacecraft were told where to go by calculating its position in relation to the Earth.

The data is sent via a relay system that can take anything from minutes to hours to be passed along. While this system is working well for close-to-earth missions, as we move towards more deep-space projects, a new way of navigating is required.


Set to launch in June

The Atomic Clock is one possible answer. The technology will begin its test period in June when it is launched on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket into Earth's orbit for one year. It will be rigorously tested to see if it can help spacecraft locate themselves in space.

If the tests go well, it could open the doors to a one-way navigation method that would allow both autonomous and crewed spacecraft to fly safely into deep space. 

"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 Jill Seubert, the deputy principal investigator.

GPS too inaccurate for deep space

GPS devices and smartphones determine their location by sending data to atomic clocks on satellites that orbit the Earth. The device's position is determined by triangulating its position in relation to the atomic clock.

Spacecraft can’t use GPS as small inaccuracies can mean vast distances. Instead, they currently use giant satellites that send a signal to the spacecraft, which bounces it back to Earth.

Extremely accurate clocks on the ground measure how long this message takes, to send and receive, which tells navigators how far away the spacecraft is and how fast it is traveling.

Just like an echo

"It's the same exact concept as an echo," said Seubert. "If I'm standing in front of a mountain and I shout, the longer it takes for the echo to come back to me, the farther away the mountain is."

While the system is sound, it can take a long time for messages to be sent and received. Remember when the world waited for 14 minutes to see if NASA’s Curiosity rover had landed safely on Mars?

An Atomic Clock on board a spacecraft would mean a message is sent from Earth directly to the spacecraft, which is then measured by the onboard clock and that information is used to determine its location.