NASA all-set to Launch a Deep Space Timekeeper

Atomic Clock (Nasa)

NASA will launch an incredible new atomic clock from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. This demonstrating technology expedition could alter the way humans travel over the space.

This ‘Deep Space Atomic Clock’ was developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It will not only upgrade to the atomic clocks that we use here on Earth, but also the clocks that already fly on satellites, like those that provide GPS.

As stated by NASA in a statement, this new atomic clock will make spacecraft navigation to distant objects in space on the journey to Mars.

They also said that an accuracy in calculation of the spacecraft’s position that scientists hope to get with the Deep Space Atomic Clock will allow spacecraft traveling in deep space to act on their own, without much communication with Earth. It’d be an immense advancement to how spacecraft are presently navigated.

How does it work?

Thus far, cosmologists used clocks to navigate in space. They send a signal to the spacecraft that sends it back to the Earth, by the time of that round trip, cosmologists tells the distance of spacecraft from the Earth. This is because the signal travel at the speed of light that is equipped with the time it took to go to the spacecraft and back. Cosmologists could calculate a spacecraft’s trajectory ( both where it was and where it’s going) by sending multiple signals over time. Finding distance is a simple calculation.

However, according to NASA, astronomers need a very accurate clocks that can calculate billionths of a second to find the position of a spacecraft within a small margin of error. They also need clocks that are exceedingly stable.

A well liked clocks those we wear on our wrists to those used on satellites, most often keep time using a quartz crystal oscillator. These lead to the fact that quartz crystals vibrate at a accurate frequency, when voltage is applied to them, NASA stated in the statement.

However, quartz crystal clocks aren’t very steady at all by the standards of space navigation. After six weeks, they may be off by a full millisecond which transmits at the speed of light to 185 miles (300 kilometers). That have a immense impact on calculating the position of a fast moving spacecraft.

Quartz Crystal Oscillators combine atomic clocks with definite types of atoms to generate better stability.

According to NASA, the Deep Space Atomic Clock will use mercury atoms and may be off by less than a nanosecond, after four days and less than a microsecond, after 10 years. It will take 10 million years for the clock to be wrong by a whole second.

There may be nothing astonishing to learn that atomic clocks lead over the structure of atoms. These atoms are composed of a nucleus of protons and neutrons surrounded by electrons. The atoms of each element have a different structure with a different number of protons in the nucleus. While the number of electrons in each type of atom has could vary, the electrons occupy different energy levels and a burst of the right amount of energy could lead an electron to jump to a higher energy level around the nucleus. The energy needed to make an electron do this jump is unique to each element and stable to all atoms of that element.

In an atomic clock, the frequency of the quartz oscillator is transformed into the frequency, that is applied to a collection of atoms from a specific element. If the frequency is correct, it would lead many electrons in the atoms to jump energy levels. But, if it’s not than fewer electrons would jump, that tells how much to correct it. This correction is calculated on the Deep Space Atomic Clock and applied to the quartz oscillator in every few seconds. An atomic clocks can correct themselves.

Clock Schematic

Clock Schematic

This atomic clock not only uses mercury atoms, but it also uses charged mercury ions. As ions are atoms with electric charge, they can be contained in an electromagnetic trap. This prevent the atoms from interacting with the walls of a vacuum chamber, that is a common problem with the neutral atoms used in regular atomic clocks. Meanwhile, they interact with the vacuum walls, environmental changes occurs, such as temperature can cause changes in the atoms themselves and lead to frequency errors.

According to NASA, This Deep Space Atomic Clock won’t be subject to such environmental changes and it would be 50 times more stable than the clocks used on GPS satellites. After launch on Monday, scientists would be able to start testing the clock’s accuracy.