NASA Deep Space Atomic Clock Mission Ended Last Month

Navigating in space is difficult, and as missions venture further and further into space, the need for precise navigation increases. NASA launched the Deep Space Atomic Clock mission on June 25, 2019. The agency has confirmed that the mission came to a successful end on September 18, 2021.

The mission aimed to improve space navigation, and NASA says its technology demonstration operated for much longer than originally planned. The mission even broke the stability record for atomic clocks in space. NASA's Deep Space Atomic Clock was integrated into the General Atomics Orbital Test Bed spacecraft.

That spacecraft launched aboard the DoD Space Test Program 2 mission in the summer of 2019. Spacecraft today rely on atomic clocks that are on the ground. Highly precise measurements of time are required for a spacecraft as it travels beyond the moon. The precision timekeepers are used to track the spacecraft by noting when signals are sent and received.

Personnel in charge of navigation know that radio signals travel at the speed of light. They can use time measurements to calculate the exact distance, speed, and direction spacecraft is traveling. The further a spacecraft gets from Earth, the longer it takes to send and receive signals. That lengthening delay can significantly reduce the speed of calculations.

By utilizing an onboard atomic clock paired with the navigation system, the spacecraft will immediately be able to calculate where it is and where it's going. Deep Space Atomic Clock is a mercury-ion atomic clock inside a small box that measures about 25 centimeters on each side. That makes it approximately the size of a toaster you might use for your bagel in the morning.

The successful mission was able to show the atomic clock could survive the stresses of launch and the cold and radiation-filled environment of space without losing performance. Originally, the mission was supposed to last one year, but it was extended because the clock remained stable. Data gathered in the mission will help for the next version in development called the Deep Space Atomic Clock-2 launch in 2028 aboard a Venus mission.