Atomic Clock Robotic News
April 11, 2012 20:38:14
NASA to Fly Deep Space Atomic Clock to Improve Navigation Technology
By Robert Gass

HUNTSVILLE, Ala - When people think of space technologies, many think of high-tech solar panels, complex and powerful propulsion systems or sophisticated, electronic guidance systems. Another critical piece of spaceflight technology, however, is an ultra stable, highly accurate device for timing - essential to NASA's success on deep-space exploration missions.

NASA is preparing to fly a Deep Space Atomic Clock, or DSAC, demonstration that will revolutionize the way we conduct deep-space navigation by enabling a spacecraft to calculate its own timing and navigation data in real time. This one-way navigation technology would improve upon the current two-way system in which information is sent to Earth, requiring a ground team to calculate timing and navigation and then transmitting it back to the spacecraft. A real-time, on-board navigation capability is key to improving NASA’s capabilities for executing time critical events, such as a planetary landing or planetary "fly-by," when signal delays are too great for the ground to interact with the spacecraft during the event.

"Adopting DSAC on future NASA missions will increase navigation and radio science data quantity by two to three times, 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," said Todd Ely, principal investigator of the Deep Space Atomic Clock Technology Demonstration at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The project is part of NASA's Technology Demonstration Missions program, managed by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., for NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist in Washington.

The one-way deep space navigation enabled by DSAC uses the existing deep space network more efficiently than the current two-way system, thus expanding the network’s capacity without adding any new antennas or their associated costs. This is important, since future human exploration of deep space will demand more tracking from the deep space network than can currently be delivered with the existing system.

"The Deep Space Atomic Clock flight demonstration 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 said.

The clock is a miniature mercury-ion atomic device the DSAC team will fly as a payload on an Earth orbiter in a one-year experiment to validate its operability in space and its usefulness for one-way navigation.

"A potential use for DSAC on a future mission would be in a follow-up to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter," Ely said. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched to Mars in 2005 on a search for evidence that water existed on the planet's surface for enough time to provide a habitat for life. The orbiter completed its primary science phase in 2008 and continues to work in an extended mission. Atomic clocks are the most accurate timekeeping method known and are used as the primary standard for international time distribution services -- to control the frequency of television broadcasts, and in global navigation satellite systems such as the Global Positioning System.

 Ground-based atomic clocks have long been the cornerstone of most space vehicle navigation because they provide root data necessary for precise positioning. DSAC will deliver the same stability and accuracy for spacecraft exploring the solar system. In much the same way that modern Global Positioning Systems, or GPS, use one-way signals to enable terrestrial navigation services, the Deep Space Atomic Clock will provide a similar capability in deep-space navigation -- with such extreme accuracy that researchers will be required to carefully account for the effects of relativity, or the relative motion of an observer and an observed object, as impacted by gravity, space and time. Clocks in GPS-based satellite, for example, must be corrected to account for this effect, or their navigational fixes begin to drift.

In the laboratory setting, the Deep Space Atomic Clock's precision has been refined to permit drift of no more than one nanosecond in 10 days, due to the work of NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Over the past 20 years, they have been steadily improving and miniaturizing the mercury-ion trap atomic clock, preparing it to operate in the harsh environment of deep space. 

A computer-aided design, or CAD, drawing of the linear ion trap of the clock -- the "heart" of the Deep Space Atomic Clock's physics package -- is slightly smaller than two rolls of quarters laid side by side. The DSAC project is a small, low-mass atomic clock based on mercury-ion trap technology that will be demonstrated in space, providing unprecedented stability needed for next-generation deep space navigation and radio science.

Image credit: NASA/JPL
 



 

More Interactive Photography
Gale Crator InterActive First look crisp look around Gale Crator This 360-degree, full-resolution panorama from NASA's Curiosity rover shows the area all around...
Endeavour nose gear in OPF InterActive Endeavour nose gear in OPF This was shot from forward and underneath Space Shuttle Endeavour in the Orbiter Processing...
Endeavor engine compartment InterActive Endeavor engine compartment View into the Space Shuttle's engine compartment with the three main engines removed.
Endeavor engine compartment InterActive Endeavor engine compartment View into the Space Shuttle's engine compartment with the three main engines removed.
Endeavour Cargo Bay InterActive Endeavour Cargo Bay This image was shot from the forward end of Space Shuttle Endeavour's cargo ba as it sits in...
Interior view of the Space Shuttle Endeavour forward flight deck. InterActive Interior view of the Space Shuttle Endeavour forward flight deck. Interior view of the Space Shuttle Endeavour aft flight deck.
Endeavour Forward Flight Deck InterActive Endeavour Forward Flight Deck Interior view of the Space Shuttle Endeavour forward flight deck.
Atlas V with Mars Science Laboratory payload InterActive Atlas V with Mars Science Laboratory payload The rover Curiosity will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific...
Curiosity rover InterActive Curiosity rover NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or...
Curiosity rover InterActive Curiosity rover NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or...
Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory InterActive GRAIL The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory mission's primary science objectives will be to...
Atlas V AV-029 InterActive Atlas V AV-029 ULA Atlas V number AV-029 reaches launch pad on August 4th, 2011. In less than 1 day this Atlas...
Atlas V up close InterActive Atlas V up close Get to know the Atlas V up close. Explore the rivets in this 74.62 megapixel image of the Atlas...
JUNO Atlas V InterActive JUNO Atlas V ULA Atlas V with the JUNO probe sitting atop at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is ready for...
Atlantis at wheels stop on runway 15 InterActive Atlantis on runway Space Shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth in the predawn hours of July 21st, 2011. Marking the...
Atlantis at wheels stop on runway 15 InterActive Atlantis at wheels stop on runway 15 Space Shuttle Atlantis returned to Earth in the predawn hours of July 21st, 2011. Marking the...
Atlantis and tower InterActive Atlantis and tower Space shuttle Atlantis waits to receive payload for the final space shuttle mission STS-135,...
Atlantis payload preparations InterActive Atlantis payload preparations Space shuttle Atlantis at pad 39A. The payload canister can be seen lifted in to position to...
Walk with the astronauts InterActive Walk with the astronauts A view of the 195ft level of the fixed service structure. This where the astronauts arrive at...
Last Space Shuttle prepares for launch InterActive Last Space Shuttle prepares for launch A close in look at space shuttle Atlantis on June 17th. Launch preparations are on going for...
The last space shuttle to be on the launch pad InterActive The last space shuttle to be on the launch pad Space shuttle Atlantis, the last space shuttle to flight begins launch prepartions at pad 39A...
Last space shuttle arrives at launch pad InterActive Last space shuttle arrives at launch pad Space shuttle Atlantis is seen here from the top of the rotating service structure the moring...
The last space shuttle has left the building InterActive The last space shuttle has left the building Space shuttle Atlantis rolls out of the Vehicle Assembly Building for the last time on the...
Space Shuttle Atlantis prepared to rollout to pad   InterActive Space Shuttle Atlantis prepared to rollout to pad Space shuttle Atlantis complete with the solid rocket boosters and external tank that will...
HiRes Atlantis hanging in VAB InterActive HiRes Atlantis hanging in VAB HiRes image of Space Shuttle Atlantis hanging in the Vehical Assembly Building. This shot was...
Atlantis vertical from VAB Level 5 InterActive Atlantis vertical from VAB Level 5 Space Shuttle Atlantis after being lifted into the verticle position before being mated to the...
Atlantis vertical InterActive Atlantis vertical Space Shuttle Atlantis hangs vertical before removing the rear hoist and lifting it for the...
Atlantis rolling vertical InterActive Atlantis rolling vertical Here Space Shuttle Atlantis is almost vertical being positioned to soon be mated to the...
Atlantis hanging in VAB InterActive Atlantis hanging in VAB Space Shuttle Atlantis is seen here hanging about 10 feet above the VAB floor. It has justed...
Endeavour at night InterActive Endeavour at night Space shuttle Endeavour seen here at night as launch preparation continue for the first launch...
Atlantis rolling over to VAB for final mission InterActive Atlantis rolling over to VAB for final mission Space Shuttle Atlantis rolling over the VAB for the last time. Atlantis is scheduled to be the...
Atlantis outside VAB for employee photos InterActive Atlantis outside VAB for employee photos Space shuttle Atlantis, the last space shuttle, pauses during rollover from the OPF to the VAB...
Hi Resolution image of the last space shuttle InterActive Hi Resolution image of the last space shuttle Hi Resolution composit image of the last space shuttle, Atlantis, as it sits atop the transport...
Atlantis in the VAB InterActive Atlantis in the VAB Nice 360 degree view of the VAB with Atlantis being preped for the Lift and Mate procedure
Atlantis on the sled in VAB InterActive Atlantis on the sled in VAB Explore the VAB with Space Shuttle Atlantis on the sled after rollover to the VAB jst before...
Atlantis being attached to sling InterActive Atlantis being attached to sling Full 360 degree panorama from inside the VAB as Space Shuttle Atlantis is attached to the sling...
Endeavour after RSS retraction InterActive Endeavour after RSS retraction Hi-Res image of Space Shuttle Endeavour on the launch pad 39A minutes after the RSS was...
The Mound STS-134 4/29 Attempt InterActive The Mound STS-134 4/29 Attempt This a 360 degree panorama from the mound of the KSC media center. This was the scence about an...
Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) InterActive Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2, a particle physics detector designed to search for various...
AMS in the SSPF InterActive AMS in the SSPF The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2, a particle physics detector designed to search for various...
Here is Space Shuttle Endeavour just after sunrise InterActive Here is Space Shuttle Endeavour just after sunrise Here is Space Shuttle Endeavour just after sunrise the morning it arrived from the VAB. How...
Endeavour in the VAB InterActive Endeavour in the VAB Space Shuttle Endeavour sitting stacked and ready atop the crawler to rollout the launch pad.
Endeavour in the VAB InterActive Endeavour in the VAB Space Shuttle Endeavour sitting stacked and ready atop the crawler to rollout the launch pad.
Space Shuttle Discovery final towover InterActive Space Shuttle Discovery final towover View of Space Shuttle Discovery 4 hours after returning to Earth for the last time. Discovery...
Space Shuttle Discovery Final Launch InterActive Space Shuttle Discovery Final Launch This a 360 degree panorama taken 3 mile from the launch pad capturing the final lift off of...
Space shuttle Discovery final launch InterActive Space shuttle Discovery final launch This a 360 degree panorama taken 3 mile from the launch pad capturing the final lift off of...
Discovery at Night InterActive Discovery at Night This a panorama of Space Shuttle Discovery shortly after RSS retraction on 11/3/2010 preparing...
GRIP DC-8 Panorama InterActive GRIP DC-8 Panorama Interior of forward section of NASA GRIP aircraft while configured for studding hurricane...
GRIP DC-8 Interior InterActive GRIP DC-8 Interior Interior of forward section of NASA GRIP aircraft while configured for studding hurricane...
NASA GRIP DC-8 InterActive NASA GRIP DC-8 The NASA DC-8 is a four-engine jet transport that has been highly modified to support the...
Endeavour on pad InterActive Endeavour ready for launch HiRes image of Endeavour at Pad 39A
AMS-2 Antimatter Telescope InterActive AMS-2 Antimatter Telescope Explore the SSPF and ESA's Antimatter Telescope. 360 rotating,zoomable Panorama!
Spectacular ultra hi-rez interactive shot of the Space Shuttle Endeavour on the launch pad for the last time InterActive Explore LC-39A !! Spectacular ultra hi-rez interactive shot of the Space Shuttle Endeavour on the launch pad for...