The most precise clock ever flown in space may not inspire thrills, but it could be the key to safely sending people to Mars.
The appropriately named Deep Space Atomic Clock was successfully activated last week after it launched in June, NASA said. With it, astronauts traveling to Mars and beyond can safely navigate anywhere where signal is spotty.
An atomic clock must be hyper-precise for travel through deep space, where everything is bigger and mistakes quickly can add up.
Accurately measuring billionths of a second could mean the difference between a stable landing on Mars to missing the planet completely, the space agency said.
An ordinary atomic clock just won’t do
GPS satellites that orbit Earth use atomic clocks for precise time-keeping, NASA said, but those aren’t made to withstand forces in space that can mess with their accuracy.
That’s because standard atomic clocks use neutral atoms, which can be impacted by environmental changes in space like changes in temperature or atmospheric pressure.
But NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock is up to 50 times more stable than standard atomic clocks because it’s powered by mercury ions. The ions’ electric charge means they can be contained in an electromagnetic trap that safeguard them, NASA said.
Traditionally, space crew rely on refrigerator-size clocks on Earth to pinpoint their location and set their course in space. But with a clock onboard, space crews won’t need to rely on those instructions from the ground, so they can travel further than ever before.
The clock will spend one year in Earth’s orbit to test how well it does on its own, NASA said. If all goes well, astronauts will be one step closer to a Martian mission.