Atomic Clock Will Help Navigation for Mars Missions

An atomic clock small enough to fly on a space mission but precise enough to give accurate directions could eliminate the need for 4-20 minute two-way communication delays for Mars missions. Future navigators would send a signal from Earth to a spacecraft. Like its Earthly cousins, the Deep Space Atomic Clock onboard would measure the amount of time it took that signal to reach it. The spacecraft could then calculate its own position and trajectory, essentially giving itself directions.

“Having a clock onboard would enable onboard radio navigation and, when combined with optical navigation, make for a more accurate and safe way for astronauts to be able to navigate themselves,” said Deep Space Atomic Clock Principal Investigator Todd Ely.

This one-way navigation has applications for Mars and beyond. DSN antennas would be able to communicate with multiple missions at a time by broadcasting one signal into space. The new technology could improve the accuracy of GPS on Earth. And multiple spacecraft with Deep Space Atomic Clocks could orbit Mars, creating a GPS-like network that would give directions to robots and humans on the surface.

“The Deep Space Atomic Clock will have the ability to aid in navigation, not just locally but in other planets as well. One way to think of it is as if we had GPS at other planets,” said Eric Burt, the ion clock development lead.

Burt and fellow JPL clock physicists Robert Tjoelker and John Prestage created a mercury ion clock, which maintains its stability in space in the same way as refrigerator-size atomic clocks on Earth. In lab tests, the Deep Space Atomic Clock proved to be 50 times more accurate than GPS clocks. That’s an error of 1 second every 10 million years.

The clock’s demonstration in space will determine whether it can remain stable in orbit. If it does, a Deep Space Atomic Clock could fly on a mission as early as the 2030s. The first step toward self-driving spacecraft that could one day carry humans to other worlds.

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