NASA switches on its Deep Space Atomic Clock

NASA has flipped the switch and activated the Deep Space Atomic Clock. The clock was activated last week and is now ready to start its year-long tech demo. The Deep Space Atomic clock was launched in June and is a critical step towards enabling spacecraft to safely navigate themselves in deep space.

The atomic clock will end the need for spacecraft to rely on navigation directions from Earth. The transit time for directions from Earth is long. The clock is the first that is stable enough to map a spacecraft's trajectory in deep space while being small enough to integrate into a spacecraft.

Atomic clocks are used to measure the distance between objects by timing how long it takes a signal to travel from point A to point B. For use in space travel, the clock has to be highly precise because an error of even one second could mean landing on a planet like Mars or missing it by hundreds of thousands of miles.

NASA's new Deep Space Atomic clock is up to 50 times more stable than atomic clocks on GPS satellites. The clock is a mercury-ion unit and loses one second every 10 million years. Currently, the atomic clocks used to pinpoint a spacecraft in space are on Earth and are about the size of a refrigerator.

The clocks aboard the spacecraft will allow the spacecraft to calculate its trajectory without waiting for directions from Earth. The team plans to measure how well the clock keeps time down to the nanosecond in the coming months. The results begin a countdown towards a day when astronauts will be able to safely navigate themselves to other worlds.