In a key advance to safely navigate future human exploration of the solar system, US space agency NASA will be sending next-gen atomic clock to space this year. Timekeeping is important and plays a key role in spacecraft navigation.
The atomic clock will play an important role in future deep space missions. According to NASA, the clock will be smaller, lighter and will possess magnitudes more precise than any atomic clock flown in space ever.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California had developed the Deep Space Atomic Clock. The integration of the atomic clock was monitored last month by JPL engineers on to the Surrey Orbital Test Bed spacecraft. The atomic clock will be taken into the orbit later this year by the Surrey Orbital Test Bed spacecraft.
Two-way methods are used to track most spacecraft - the ground-based antenna ‘pings’ the spacecraft and waits for the signal to return. The distance to the spacecraft can be calculated by measuring the time taken by the signal to travel.
This information is then processed by a navigation team that determines the flight path of the spacecraft and ascertains if any course corrections are required.
“One-way” tracking is enabled by the clock so that the spacecraft does not require to send the signal back to Earth.
NASA said that the tracking measurements could be taken onboard and processed with a spacecraft-based navigation system in order to determine the path and whether any manoeuvres are needed to stay on course.
This will be a key advance for safely navigating future human exploration of the solar system by providing astronauts with their position and velocity when they need it.
It will lighten the load on the antennas in NASA’s Deep Space Network, allowing more spacecraft to be tracked with a single antenna.
The Deep Space Atomic Clock would also improve the precision and quantity of the radio data used by scientists for determining a planet’s gravity field and probing its atmosphere.
(With inputs from PTI)