Deep Space Atomic Clocks Will Improve Future Space Missions

NASA Jet Propulsion Lab has had a successful two-year mission using a new deep space atomic clock. Next-generation deep space atomic clocks will improve spacecraft navigation. The technology demonstration operated far longer than planned and broke the stability record for atomic clocks in space.

Currently, spacecraft rely on ground-based atomic clocks.

The farther a spacecraft is from Earth, the longer it takes to send and receive signals. A spacecraft near Mars would wait several minutes and missions at Pluto and beyond take few hours. Each astronomical unit is almost 93 million miles and it is the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Light takes 499 (8 minutes 19 seconds) seconds to go from the Sun to the earth. Light takes about 4 hours to get to Pluto. Saturn ranges from 9-10 AU from the sun. Saturn can sometimes be on the other side of the Sun from the Earth. With an onboard atomic clock paired with a navigation system, the spacecraft could immediately calculate where it is and where it is going.

Built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, the Deep Space Atomic Clock is an ultra-precise, mercury-ion atomic clock encased in a small box that measures about 10 inches (25 centimeters) on each side – roughly the size of a toaster.

In a recent study, the Deep Space Atomic Clock team reported a deviation of less than four nanoseconds after more than 20 days of operation.

Like its predecessor, the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2 will be a tech demo, meaning that VERITAS will not depend on it to fulfill its goals. But this next iteration will be smaller, use less power, and be designed to support a multi-year mission like VERITAS.

The Deep Space Atomic Clock-2, an improved version of the DSAC, will fly on the VERITAS mission to Venus in 2028.

Written By Brian Wang,