NASA is set to put a mission into orbit in late June 2019 that will put an atomic clock into space. The clock is called the Deep Space Atomic Clock, and it will launch aboard the Orbital Test Bed satellite that will launch into space on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. The Deep Space Atomic Clock will help usher in a future with more accurate navigation for autonomous spacecraft.
Space navigation today has navigators telling a spacecraft where to go by calculating its position from Earth and sending location data to space in a two-way relay system that can take minutes or hours to deliver directions. The issue with this sort of navigation is that no matter how far into the solar system the spacecraft travels, it is still tethered to Earth.
The challenge for a future human-crewed mission to other planets is that astronauts need immediate control over where they are going. The challenge is how to accurately land on another planet with a communication delay that affects how they can adjust their trajectory into the atmosphere.
The Deep Space Atomic Clock is the size of a toaster and is a GPS-like instrument that is the first to be small and stable enough to fly on a spacecraft. The tech inside the clock enables the spacecraft to know where it is without having to rely on data from Earth. When the clock heads into orbit, it will stay there for a year and test if it helps spacecraft to locate themselves in space.
If the test goes well, the system could pave the way for one-way navigation where a spacecraft’s own GPS-like system guides astronauts. Scientists say that the Deep Space Atomic Clock is 50 times more accurate than GPS clocks with an error of 1 second every 10 million years. If the clock works, it could fly on missions as early as the 2030s.