NASA Tests the Deep Space Atomic Clock That Will Navigate Us to Alien Planets
It's essential that astronauts traveling in space have a watch accurate enough to keep time. The Omega Speedmaster chronographs have long been standard issue for such astronauts, and was the first watch on the moon. But traveling into deep space requires something entirely more intricate.
That's why NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, has spent 20 years developing a Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSCAC). It's an instrument that of unparalleled accuracy and potential that will provide the crucial navigatory information we'll need to discover what planets and intelligent life await us as we venture further into the unknown.
Most missions use ground-based antennae that are paired with grounded atomic clocks; the antennae send signals to the spacecraft, which then returns the signal. It's in that time difference that they calculate the spacecrafts coordinates, velocity and trajectory. Because the ground station must wait for that return signal to calculate what it needs, the process currently only accommodates one spacecraft at a time. Suffice to say, there's much room for the process to be more efficient.
The DSAC, meanwhile, is a small, low-mass atomic clock that runs on mercury-ion trap technology and uses GPS. It's about the size of a toaster, while the atomic clocks at NASA's ground stations are approximately the size of a small refrigerator. Because it can track multiple crafts at once, its ability to track multiple satellites simultaneously in crowded locations like Mars makes for readings about five times more effective.
"Navigating in deep space requires measuring vast distances using our knowledge of how radio signals propagate in space," said Todd Ely of the Jet Propulsion Lab. "Navigating routinely requires distance measurements accurate to a meter or better. Since radio signals travel at the speed of light, that means we need to measure their time-of-flight to a precision of a few nanoseconds. Atomic clocks have done this routinely on the ground for decades. Doing this in space is what DSAC is all about."
The DSAC project hopes to launch this year as a test that will determine the device's ability to provide accurate onboard timekeeping for future missions.
"Spacecraft using this new technology would no longer have to rely on two-way tracking," says NASA. "A spacecraft could use a signal sent from Earth to calculate position without returning the signal and waiting for commands from the ground, a process that can take hours. Timely location data and onboard control allow for more efficient operations, more precise maneuvering and adjustments to unexpected situations."
The DSAC tests are sorely needed; the recent discovery of thousands of new exoplanets means we have more reason to explore deep space now than ever.
This week, scientists also published their findings on a system of earth-like expolanets known as TRAPPIST-1. Not only does this seven-planet solar system closely resemble our own, its planets are made up of gas and water, look strikingly similar to Earth, and have a high potential to support alien life. The DSAC could very well play a crucial role in our exploration of spaces, ahem, outer limits, not to mention exciting extraterrestrial planets in our own solar system.
Recent studies suggest it's highly likely that alien life is hiding somewhere on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, with the icy planets of Europa, Ganymeade, Enceladus, and especially Titan all looking like the most promising contenders for alien contact in our cosmic backyard.