The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has made a key advance in future human space exploration by developing the world’s first next-generation atomic clock for deep space missions.
The clock has been developed by engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. Called Deep Space Atomic Clock, it is expected to aid future manned deep space exploration missions by helping in the navigation of space crafts.
• This clock will be smaller, lighter and its magnitudes are expected to be more precise than any atomic clock flown in space before.
• The JPL engineers in February 2017 monitored the integration of the clock on to the Surrey Orbital Test Bed spacecraft, which will take it into the orbit later in 2017.
• Currently, most space crafts are tracked using the ‘two-way’ method where a ground-based antenna ‘pings’ the spacecraft and then waits for the signal to return.
• The distance to the spacecraft is calculated on the basis of how long the signal takes to travel. The navigation team then uses the same data to determine the spacecraft’s flight path and see if any changes are required in the course.
• With the development of the clock, however, the spacecraft will not need to send the signal back to earth. Scientists would be able to track the spaceships in real-time.
• The clock would also help improve the precision and quantity of radio data used by scientists for determining a planet’s gravity field and probing its atmosphere.
This development will help guide astronauts in the future as it will provide their position and velocity whenever they require it. It will also lighten the load on the antennas in NASA’s Deep Space Network, allowing more space crafts to be tracked with a single antenna.