Nasa has switched on an atomic clock that could one day change the way we explore the distant universe.
The Deep Space Atomic Clock has been successfully activated and will now stay on for a year to check that the technology powering it works, the space agency has announced.
If the test is successful, the clock will allow spacecraft to navigate themselves through space, rather than relying on the long and difficult process of being guided by messages from Earth.
That in turn could allow for spacecraft to fly further from the Earth, into deep space and exploring the far-away universe. From there, astronauts might be able to travel to the rest of the solar system and into deep space.
The new clock is the first timekeeper that is stable enough to be used to map a spacecraft’s trajectory through deep space, while also being small enough to fit onboard that same spacecraft.
Because it is so stable, it will be able to operate on its own much further away from Earth. Anything that was fired into deep space would need to be able to look after itself well for much longer than the satellites that stay closer to the Earth.
Atomic clocks can be used to measure the distance between objects by timing how long it takes to travel between them. That allows the spacecraft to position itself in space as it travels.
But any clock used to do so must be incredible precise. Even a second of error in the timing could be the difference between landing on a planet or missing it by hundreds of thousands of miles.
The Deep Space Atomic Clock has showed that it can stay accurate to one second every 10 million years on Earth. Now it can be will be trialled in space, as engineers test how it works onboard a spacecraft, where it will be measured down to the milisecond.
“The goal of the space experiment is to put the Deep Space Atomic Clock in the context of an operating spacecraft – complete with the things that affect the stability and accuracy of a clock – and see if it performs at the level we think it will: with orders of magnitude more stability than existing space clocks,” said navigator Todd Ely, principal investigator of the project at JPL.
At the moment, engineers use large atomic clocks on Earth to specifically find where a craft is in space. That means waiting, sometimes for hours, as a signal is sent up to the spacecraft and then back down, which is then used to send instructions that have to make their way back upt to the spacecraft again.
The new clock would be able to get around that problem, allowing spacecraft to fly further in space and helping to allow humans to get to the other planets.