What Exactly is NASA’s “Deep Space Atomic Clock”?

After much anticipation, NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock has finally been launched, and is in the process of completing its first year-long demo in orbit.  For most of the general public, an atomic clock isn’t something worth getting excited about.  However, NASA enthusiasts know that this could change space travel as we know it, and in a big way.

The Clock Explained

Almost everyone uses an atomic clock without even realizing it, as it turns out.  GPS technology relies on an atomic clock, using it to predict the time it will take to travel from one location to another.  Atomic clocks are more accurate than any other clock in the world, because they rely on the resonant frequency of atoms rather than a pendulum, which is what most clocks use.  Pendulum clocks are prone to human and technological error, but atomic clocks are, simply put, immune to error.

It’s because of the accuracy of atomic clocks that our GPS can tell us when we will reach a destination so precisely.  As you may imagine, this technology is equally useful in space travel.  As more and more spacecrafts are traveling without a crew, efficiency is needed.  Up until now, spacecrafts had to travel while being guided by a team at NASA’s headquarters.  This slowed things down, limited the distance that could be traveled and put the spacecraft at risk of falling victim to human error.

With the Deep Space Atomic Clock, error is practically impossible.  This means that a spacecraft can travel on a trajectory without relying on guidance from people.  The clock will use signals between space objects to determine how long it will take to get from one point to another, as well as what the most efficient path will be.  Meanwhile, this clock will be sending signals to Earth so that NASA can accurately track the spacecraft.  

This actually benefits NASA in several ways.  For one thing, it means that spacecraft can travel further distances, which means that we can learn even more about the solar system than we have been able to in the past.  It also means that missions will take less time, because they don’t depend on information being given from NASA experts.  And, it saves money by minimizing the need for a full team of people to guide a spacecraft along its journey.

Essentially, this new technology allows spacecraft to be self-sufficient in ways we never thought were possible just years ago.  Also, accuracy is far more important in space travel than travel here on Earth.  This clock tracks nanoseconds.  When it comes to space travel, this measure of time is crucial to ensure a successful and safe journey.  Being slight off time could spell disaster, in fact.  For instance, one split-second off could cause a spacecraft to collide with a space body and disappear into the abyss forever. 

Amazing Technology Indeed

NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock is allowing spacecraft to travel more efficiently, quicker, more accurately and more independently than ever before.  Thanks to this massive technological achievement, space travel can cover more distance and gather more data than it ever has.  Once the year-long demo is complete, we can’t wait to see this clock really being put to use in ways that give us insight into our solar system.

  • Aug 28, 2019
  • Category: Blog
  • Comments: 0
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