Deep Space Atomic Clock General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems Orbital Test Bed

This illustration reveals NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock innovation presentation and the General Atomics Orbital Test Bed spacecraft that hosts it. Spacecraft might one day depend upon such instruments to browse deep area. Credit: NASA

Geared towards enhancing spacecraft navigation, the innovation presentation ran far longer than prepared and broke the stability record for atomic clocks in area.

For more than 2 years, “>“> NASA‘s Deep Space Atomic Clock has actually been pressing the timekeeping frontiers in area. On September 18, 2021, its objective concerned an effective end.

The instrument is hosted on General Atomics ‘Orbital Test Bed spacecraft that was introduced aboard the Department of Defense Space Test Program 2 objective June25,2019 Its objective: to evaluate the expediency of utilizing an onboard atomic clock to enhance spacecraft navigation in deep area.

NASA's Deep Space Atomic Clock

The Deep Space Atomic Clock has to do with10 inches(25 centimeters) on each side, approximately the size of a toaster. Its compact style was a crucial requirement, and an even smaller sized model will fly aboard NASA’s VERITAS spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Currently, spacecraft count on ground-based atomic clocks. To determine a spacecraft’s trajectory as it takes a trip beyond the Moon, navigators utilize these timekeepers to specifically track when those signals are sent out and gotten. Since navigators understand that radio signals take a trip at the speed of light( about186,000 miles per 2nd, or300,000 kilometers per second), they can utilize these time measurements to compute the spacecraft’s specific range, speed, and instructions of travel.

But the further a spacecraft is from Earth, the longer it requires to send out and get signals– from a number of minutes to a couple of hours– considerably postponing these computations. With an onboard atomic clock coupled with a navigation system, the spacecraft might right away determine where it is and where it is going.

Deep Space Atomic Clock Launch

The Deep Space Atomic Clock was released on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket as part of the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) objective from Launch Complex 39 A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Tuesday, June 25,2019 Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, the Deep Space Atomic Clock is an ultra-precise, mercury-ion atomic clock enclosed in a little box that determines about 10 inches (25 centimeters) on each side– approximately the size of a toaster. Developed to endure the rigors of launch and the cold, high-radiation environment of area without its timekeeping efficiency degrading, the Deep Space Atomic Clock was an innovation presentation planned to perform technological firsts and fill vital understanding spaces.

Watch this video explainer to discover why precise timekeeping in area is vital and how NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock will make future spacecraft less depending on Earth to browse autonomously. Credit: NASA/ JPL– Caltech

After the instrument finished its 1 year main objective in Earth orbit, NASA extended the objective to gather more information since of its remarkable timekeeping stability. Prior to the tech demonstration was powered off on Sept.18, the objective worked overtime to extract as much information as possible in its last days.

” The Deep Space Atomic Clock objective was a definite success, and the gem of the story here is that the innovation
presentation ran well past its desired functional duration,” stated Todd Ely, primary private investigator and job supervisor at JPL.

The information from the trailblazing instrument will assist establish Deep Space Atomic Clock-2, a tech demonstration that will take a trip to“> Venus aboard NASA’s Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography & Spectroscopy (VERITAS) spacecraft when it introduces by2028 This will be the very first test for an atomic clock in deep area and a significant improvement for increased spacecraft autonomy.

Stability Is Everything

While atomic clocks are the most steady timekeepers on earth, they still have instabilities that can trigger a small lag, or “balanced out,” in the clocks’ time versus the real time. Left uncorrected, these offsets will build up and might result in big mistakes in placing. Split seconds might suggest the distinction in between securely coming to “>“> Mars or missing out on the world entirely.


Updates can be beamed from Earth to the spacecraft to fix for these offsets. International Positioning System( GPS) satellites, for instance, bring atomic clocks to assist us receive from point A to B. To make certain they keep the time precisely, updates require to be regularly sent to them from the ground. Having to send out regular updates from Earth to an atomic clock in deep area would not be useful and would beat the function of gearing up a spacecraft with one.

This is why an atomic clock on a spacecraft checking out deep area would require to be as steady as possible from the start, enabling it to be less depending on Earth to be upgraded.

” The Deep Space Atomic Clock prospered in this objective,” stated JPL’s Eric Burt, an atomic clock physicist for the objective. “We have actually accomplished a brand-new record for long-lasting atomic clock stability in area– more than an order of magnitude much better than GPS atomic clocks. This indicates that we now have the stability to permit more autonomy in deep area objectives and possibly make GPS satellites less based on twice-daily updates if they brought our instrument.”

Deep Space Atomic Clock Posters

Three attractive posters including the Deep Space Atomic Clock and how future variations of the tech demonstration might be utilized by spacecraft and astronauts are offered for download here. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In a current research study, the Deep Space Atomic Clock group reported a variance of less than 4 nanoseconds after more than 20 days of operation.

Like its predecessor, the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2 will be a tech demonstration, indicating that VERITAS will not depend on it to satisfy its objectives. This next model will be smaller sized, utilize less power, and be developed to support a multi-year objective like VERITAS.

” It is an impressive achievement by the group– the innovation presentation has actually shown to be a robust system in orbit, and we are now eagerly anticipating seeing an enhanced variation go to Venus,” stated Trudy Kortes, director of innovation presentations for NASA’s Science and Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This is what NASA does– we establish brand-new innovations and improve existing ones to advance human and robotic spaceflight. The Deep Space Atomic Clock genuinely has the possible to change how we check out deep area.”

Jason Mitchell, the director of the Advanced Communications & Navigation Technology Division of NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) at the firm’s head office concurred: “The instrument’s efficiency was really remarkable and a testimony to the ability of the group. Moving forward, not just will the Deep Space Atomic Clock allow considerable, brand-new functional abilities for NASA’s human and robotic expedition objectives, it might likewise make it possible for much deeper expedition of the basic physics of relativity, just like the clocks supporting GPS have actually done.”

More About the Mission

The Deep Space Atomic Clock is hosted on a spacecraft offered by General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems of Englewood, Colorado. It is sponsored by STMD’s Technology Demonstration Missions program situated at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and SCaN within NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. JPL handles the task.


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