NASA launches an accurate atomic clock into space that loses only 1 second in 10 million years

The SpaceX company launched the Falcon Heavy, its largest rocket, with 24 on-board satellites belonging to the Pentagon, NASA and other public and private clients into space on Tuesday from Florida (USA). Among them one of the US space agency that carries on board an atomic clock, an extremely precise instrument that can change the way in which spacecraft navigate through space and even how we will send astronauts to Mars (and beyond).

Built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, the Deep Space Atomic Clock is the size of a toaster. Installed on the Orbital Test Bed satellite, it will remain in low Earth orbit for a year, with the aim of being ready for future missions to other worlds.

In summary, it is an important update of conventional satellite atomic clocks that, for example, allow us to have GPS on our smartphones. To determine the distance of a spacecraft to Earth, browsers send a signal to the spacecraft, which then returns it to Earth.

The time required for the signal to make this round trip reveals the distance of the ship, because the signal travels at a known speed (that of light). By sending multiple signals and taking many measurements over time, browsers can calculate the ship’s trajectory: where it is and where it is going.

But of course, the farther a ship travels, the longer this communication takes, which means serious problems for the exploration of the solar system. The new atomic clock dramatically improves the process, allowing astronauts to know where they are more autonomously, without the need to send signals to Earth. It would allow to receive a signal from Earth and determine its location immediately using an on-board navigation system.

In addition, it is an incredibly precise instrument: it loses only 1 second in 10 million years. As NASA explains, a clock that is off even for a single second could mean the difference between landing on Mars or dodging it for kilometers. In ground tests, the deep-space atomic clock proved to be up to 50 times more stable than atomic clocks on GPS satellites. “If the mission can prove this stability in space, it will be one of the most accurate clocks in the universe,” they say from the agency.

To achieve this, the space clock does not use a quartz crystal oscillator, like most modern watches, but mercury ions, less than the amount normally found in two tuna cans. The use of an internal device to control these ions makes them less vulnerable to external forces, such as magnetic fields and temperature changes.

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