06:05 GMT10 July 2020
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    The US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will be launching its Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC) into low Earth orbit later this month aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in a bid to test out the device’s ability to keep track of time in the cosmos.

    The clock, which is roughly the size of a four-slice toaster, according to the Business Insider, will spend a year in Earth’s orbit, as researchers manage and test it capabilities. It’s expected to blast off on June 22, along with various other small spacecraft inside the rocket.

    According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the new technology will ultimately “change the way we navigate our spacecraft - even how we send astronauts to Mars and beyond.”

    “Today, we navigate in deep space by using giant antennas on Earth to send signals to spacecraft, which then send those signals back to Earth. Atomic clocks on Earth measure the time it takes a signal to make this two-way journey. Only then can human navigators on Earth use large antennas to tell the spacecraft where it is and where to go,” a release from the agency explains.

    “If we want humans to explore the solar system, we need a better, faster way for the astronauts aboard a spacecraft to know where they are, ideally without needing to send signals back to Earth. A Deep Space Atomic Clock on a spacecraft would allow it to receive a signal from Earth and determine its location immediately using an onboard navigation system.”

    NASA further explains that unlike wristwatches, the atomic clock will rely on mercury ions, which will make it less vulnerable to external forces. Additionally, since said ions don’t necessarily require as much power, its usage is expected to beat out the reliability of other ground-based atomic clocks.

    Space navigator and leader of the DSAC project Todd Ely told the Business Insider that the program will be crucial to space exploration in the future. “If we get out to Mars, the crew is going to want to know where they're at, and they will need to know it - potentially in real-time - in case they have to make last-minute course adjustments," he said.

    "If we're able to reproduce what we've seen on the ground in our testing, once DSAC is in space, it should be the most stable atomic clock in space," Ely said. "We've actually talked to the [US] Air Force about its potential use in future GPS satellites or other [Department of Defense]-type applications."

    SpaceX’s rocket is scheduled to launch from Florida’s Cape Canaveral at 11:30 p.m. EDT on June 22.


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