NASA has confirmed that a Deep Space Atomic Clock it launched into space in June was finally activated last week. The term deep space atomic clock might seem like a complex name, but what it essentially is is basically a Deep Space GPS, allowing astronauts to get their bearings much quicker and more accurately in the expanse of space.
Again, this might sound confusing. How have astronauts been conducting space travel in the past decades without a space GPS?
To break it down, all spatial awareness information relating to positioning, distance, ETA, etc. were currently liaised between Earth and the spaceship in question. This means that signals had to be sent to and from Earth to the spacecraft, which, factoring in the massive distances the signals would have to travel, meant that GPS readings and such were often delayed.
“Atomic clocks, like those used in GPS satellites, are used to measure the distance between objects by timing how long it takes a signal to travel from Point A to Point B,” NASA explains. “For space exploration, atomic clocks must be extremely precise: an error of even one second means the difference between landing on a planet like Mars or missing it by hundreds of thousands of miles.”
Interesting Engineering provides an interesting example: “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.”
If tests go well following the launch, the Deep Space Atomic Clock will serve as astronauts’ own space-hovering GPS.
“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 more stability than existing space clocks,” said navigator Todd Ely, principal investigator of the project at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory).
Below is a video by NASA explaining the ins and outs of the project.