Officials with the American space agency says that its approach to space exploration and navigation is about to change soon, if the Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC) demonstrator is tested successfully.
This is an extremely stable, highly accurate device used for time keeping. Similar atomic clocks, featuring high levels of precision in keeping time, are what allowed NASA to become so proficient at exploring other worlds in the first place.
These clocks are used for both navigation and positioning, and represent the backbone of the Global Positioning System (GPS) as well. What the innovative DSAC does is improve on these capabilities by giving spacecraft the ability to calculate their own timing and navigation data in real time.
At this point, these calculations are conducted on Earth. Probes located around other worlds have to send a series of signals here, where experts calculate positioning data. The information is then relayed back to the spacecraft, and the process can sometimes last for hours.
This two-way system may soon be replaced with an advanced one-way navigation technology, if the DSAC tests are successful. The main goal here is to allow probes to execute time-critical events, such as atmospheric reentries, without having to wait for confirmation from Earth.
Signal delays are longest before landings and flybys, scientists say. These events also have the highest risk factor associated with them. “Adopting DSAC on future NASA missions will increase navigation and radio science data quantity by two to three times,” Todd Ely explains.
This will also “improve data quality by up to 10 times and reduce mission costs by shifting toward a more flexible and extensible one-way radio navigation architecture,” the expert goes on to say.
He is the DSAC Technology Demonstration principal investigator, at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, California. This mission “will advance this laboratory-qualified technology to flight readiness and will make a practical atomic clock available to a variety of space missions,” Ely adds.
“A potential use for DSAC on a future mission would be in a follow-up to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter,” he explains. This mission is one of the most fruitful that the American space agency has ever conducted, and it is still going strong, more than 7 years after its launch.
According to the expert, DSAC – a mercury-ion atomic device – only allows for a 1-nanosecond drift from keeping perfect time over a period of 10 days.