NASA launched into space the world's most accurate atomic clock via SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket yesterday. Scientists believe this atomic clock will be crucial for space missions in the future.
Space Traveling soon can become as easy as riding a bus to go to work. NASA scientists are trying to build a model for space-navigation of self-driving spaceships using systems similar to the Global Positioning System (GPS) to locate and guide them in space.
But future space navigation requires spacecraft and satellites to be fitted with clocks that measure time more accurately than the best clocks used in space today. Therefore scientists are seeking to develop sophisticated atomic clocks that make trips to other planets of the solar system possible in the future.
This clock is called the "Deep Space Atomic Clock" and calculates time using Mercury ions charged with routine pulses about 50 times more frequent than the current atomic clocks on the GPS satellites which are using Rubidium atoms instead.
This is the first time Mercury is used in the atomic clocks used in the space and Deep Space Network project at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory will use them on probes sent to different parts of the solar system in future.
The previous atomic clocks were larger than the size of a refrigerator which made them cumbersome to be carried on space missions. The new space clock is the size of a handbag, small as a carry-on baggage in a spaceship.
Currently, space navigation is dependent to the positioning of all the probes and satellites on ground-based navigation systems powered by Deep Space Network, which sends the tracking signals in fractions of every billionth of a second into space and then measures the time it takes back and forth.
The new atomic clock will enable scientists to expedite the navigation by switching to so-called "one-way tracking" - Seubert says.
The spacecraft will use such a clock to measure the time it takes for the trace signal to arrive from Earth, without having to send this signal back to the measurement using atomic clocks.
This will enable a spacecraft to track its position and allow astronauts to direct themselves through the solar system and react more quickly to unexpected situations, without the need for instructions from Earth.
"Self-driving spacecraft" were one of the top technologies needed to put humans on Mars. Says Jill Seubert, Deputy principal investigator at JPL
"It will tell us a lot about how to operate these hours for long periods of time when traveling to places that may take months, years or even a decade to reach," he said. The researchers expect to announce the results of this experiment later this year.