Deep space travel just got a major technology boost

Quick Notes

  • For deep space navigation, an ordinary GPS isn’t going to do the job

  • NASA revealed the activation of an independent atomic clock now orbiting Earth

  • There are hopes that this will revolutionize the way space travel is navigated

Space travel is a little different than travel down here on Earth. Astronauts can’t whip out their GPS or ask Siri for a shortcut around the black hole causing traffic disruption on their way to work. This means that, for a long time, determining travel distances between planets wasn’t the easiest task known to science.

On August 23rd this year, however, NASA announced that the first atomic clock orbiting the Earth was successfully activated, which could potentially lead to dramatic leaps forward in the way space travel is mapped out.

Atomic clocks measure distance by taking into account how long a signal takes to move between two locations. For instance, NASA explains, when determining how far a spacecraft is from Earth, a signal will be sent from Earth to the spacecraft. The time it takes for the signal to leave Earth, reach the target, and return to Earth allows for us to measure how far away it is as the signal moves at a speed we can measure: the speed of light.

Pexels

A not-so-new way to measure distance, now in space!

The logic behind the atomic clock might seem a little daunting at first, but it’s really no different than the GPS you may use on your phone. Atomic clocks are already a part of the satellites that orbit Earth, and they help us get from A to B by receiving signals from our mobile phones.

These signals are then analyzed by the atomic clocks of the satellites to judge how near or far you are to your desired location. The estimated time beamed to your phone can give you a rough idea of approximately how long it would take you to make the journey. You can think about that complicated process next time you’re trying to find the nearest fast-food joint.

So if atomic clocks aren’t new, what’s so special this time?

Pexels

Well, this one’s different because it isn’t a part of a satellite, and neither is it the size of a fridge. Named the Deep Space Atomic Clock, or DSAC, this particular atomic clock can either move independently or attach itself to space craft, due to its smaller size.

A spacecraft with its own atomic clock aboard would be able to successfully plan its own trajectory, as well as plan its own journeys, in a very similar way to how our car’s GPS helps us plan our road travels.

Not only that, but it also streamlines the entire process by quite a significant margin. This is because an atomic clock aboard an unmanned spacecraft wouldn’t have to wait for any signal to arrive from Earth and back again to decipher distance, but could do it independently also immediately. NASA is hopeful that this will allow for exploration much further into deep space, as there’s nothing tethering the craft to Earth.

Space travel just took one step closer to becoming entirely autonomous.

NASA will be testing its new and exciting creation throughout the next year, as the mercury-ion atomic clock orbits Earth and begins its tech demo. There are no guarantees whether or not this particular demo will be a roaring success, but one thing is certain: space travel just took one step closer to becoming entirely autonomous.

A deeper dive – Related reading on the 101

Black hole swallows neutron star causing disturbances | Science 101

Expect heavy traffic up ahea– Oh, wait, no. The black hole took care of that. Happy traveling!

Hitchhiker’s guide to actual intergalactic space | Science 101

Let us walk you through some of the real stuff you’re going to need to know for your next space journey

Earth is mounting defenses against killer space rocks

It’s reassuring to know NASA isn’t just concerned with their space GPS systems, the killer rocks are pretty important, too