Deep Space Atomic Clock to Improve GPS, Increase Spacecraft Autonomy

Deep Area Atomic Clock to Enhance GPS, Improve Spacecraft Autonomy

Deep Space Atomic Clock Illustration

NASA’s Deep Area Atomic Clock has been working aboard the Normal Atomics Orbital Take a look at Mattress satellite tv for pc since June 2019. This illustration exhibits the spacecraft in Earth orbit. Credit score: Normal Atomics Electromagnetic Methods

Designed to enhance navigation for robotic explorers and the operation of GPS satellites, the expertise demonstration experiences a major milestone.

Spacecraft that enterprise past our Moon depend on communication with floor stations on Earth to determine the place they’re and the place they’re going. NASA’s Deep Area Atomic Clock is working towards giving these far-flung explorers extra autonomy when navigating. In a brand new paper revealed on June 30, 2021, within the journal Nature, the mission experiences progress of their work to enhance the flexibility of space-based atomic clocks to measure time constantly over lengthy durations.

Often called stability, this characteristic additionally impacts the operation of GPS satellites that assist folks navigate on Earth, so this work additionally has the potential to extend the autonomy of next-generation GPS spacecraft.

> Related: What Is an Atomic Clock?

To calculate the trajectory of a distant spacecraft, engineers ship alerts from the spacecraft to Earth and again. They use refrigerator-size atomic clocks on the bottom to log the timing of these alerts, which is important for exactly measuring the spacecraft’s place. However for robots on Mars or extra distant locations, ready for the alerts to make the journey can shortly add as much as tens of minutes and even hours.

If these spacecraft carried atomic clocks, they may calculate their very own place and route, however the clocks must be extremely steady. GPS satellites carry atomic clocks to assist us get to our locations on Earth, however these clocks require updates a number of instances a day to keep up the required stage of stability. Deep house missions would require extra steady space-based clocks.

Deep Space Atomic Clock General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems Orbital Test Bed

A glimpse of the Deep Area Atomic Clock within the center bay of the Normal Atomics Electromagnetic Methods Orbital Take a look at Mattress spacecraft. Credit score: NASA

Managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, the Deep Area Atomic Clock has been working aboard Normal Atomic’s Orbital Take a look at Mattress spacecraft since June 2019. The brand new research experiences that the mission workforce has set a brand new file for long-term atomic clock stability in house, reaching greater than 10 instances the steadiness of present space-based atomic clocks, together with these on GPS satellites.

When Each Nanosecond Counts

All atomic clocks have a point of instability that results in an offset within the clock’s time versus the precise time. If not corrected, the offset, whereas minuscule, will increase quickly, and with spacecraft navigation, even a tiny offset might have drastic results.

One of many key objectives of the Deep Area Atomic Clock mission was to measure the clock’s stability over longer and longer durations, to see the way it adjustments with time. Within the new paper, the workforce experiences a stage of stability that results in a time deviation of lower than 4 nanoseconds after greater than 20 days of operation.

“As a normal rule, an uncertainty of 1 nanosecond in time corresponds to a distance uncertainty of about one foot,” mentioned Eric Burt, an atomic clock physicist for the mission at JPL and co-author of the brand new paper. “Some GPS clocks have to be up to date a number of instances a day to keep up this stage of stability, and meaning GPS is extremely depending on communication with the bottom. The Deep Area Atomic Clock pushes this out to per week or extra, thus doubtlessly giving an software like GPS far more autonomy.”

The steadiness and subsequent time delay reported within the new paper is about 5 instances higher than what the workforce reported in the spring of 2020. This doesn’t symbolize an enchancment within the clock itself, however within the workforce’s measurement of the clock’s stability. Longer working durations and virtually a full 12 months of further knowledge made it doable to enhance the precision of their measurement.

NASA's Deep Space Atomic Clock

NASA’s Deep Area Atomic Clock might revolutionize deep house navigation. One key requirement for the expertise demonstration was a compact design. The entire {hardware} package deal is proven right here and is simply about 10 inches (25 centimeters) on both sides. Credit score: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Deep Area Atomic Clock mission will conclude in August, however NASA announced that work on this expertise continues: the Deep Area Atomic Clock-2, an improved model of the cutting-edge timekeeper, will fly on the VERITAS (quick for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) mission to Venus. Like its predecessor, the brand new house clock is a expertise demonstration, which means its objective is to advance in-space capabilities by creating devices, {hardware}, software program, or the like that doesn’t at present exist. Constructed by JPL and funded by NASA’s Area Expertise Mission Directorate (STMD), the ultra-precise clock sign generated with this expertise might assist allow autonomous spacecraft navigation and improve radio science observations on future missions.

Deep Space Atomic Clock Heart

A pc-aided design, or CAD, drawing of the linear ion lure of the clock – the “coronary heart” of the Deep Area Atomic Clock’s physics package deal – is barely smaller than two rolls of quarters laid aspect by aspect. The DSAC undertaking is a small, low-mass atomic clock primarily based on mercury-ion lure expertise that can be demonstrated in house, offering unprecedented stability wanted for next-generation deep house navigation and radio science. Credit score: NASA/JPL

“NASA’s number of Deep Area Atomic Clock-2 on VERITAS speaks to this expertise’s promise,” mentioned Todd Ely, Deep Area Atomic Clock principal investigator and undertaking supervisor at JPL. “On VERITAS, we intention to place this subsequent era house clock by way of its paces and reveal its potential for deep house navigation and science.”

Reference: “Demonstration of a trapped-ion atomic clock in house’ by E. A. Burt, J. D. Prestage, R. L. Tjoelker, D. G. Enzer, D. Kuang, D. W. Murphy, D. E. Robison, J. M. Seubert, R. T. Wang and T. A. Ely, 30 June 2021, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03571-7

Extra In regards to the Mission

The Deep Area Atomic Clock is hosted on a spacecraft offered by Normal Atomics Electromagnetic Methods of Englewood, Colorado. It’s sponsored by STMD’s Expertise Demonstration Missions program positioned at NASA’s Marshall Area Flight Middle in Huntsville, Alabama, and NASA’s Area Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program inside NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. JPL manages the undertaking.

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