NASA to improve space navigation
The Agency is to fly a deep space atomic clock - essential for long range space missions.
NASA explains that an ultra stable, highly accurate timing device is a necessary ingredient for success on deep-space exploration missions.
Hence it is preparing to fly a deep space atomic clock (DSAC) demonstrator that should revolutionise the way deep-space navigation is conducted by enabling a spacecraft to calculate its own timing and navigation data in real time.
This so-called 'one-way' navigation technology would improve on the current two-way system in which information is sent to Earth, requiring a ground team to calculate timing and navigation parameters and transmit them back to the spacecraft.
A real-time, on-board navigation capability is key to improving capabilities for executing time-critical events such as a planetary landing or fly-by - when signal delays are too great for the ground to interact with the spacecraft.
The clock is a miniature mercury-ion atomic device that will be flown as a payload on an Earth orbiter in a one-year experiment to validate its operability in space and its usefulness for one-way navigation.
In the laboratory, DSAC's precision has been refined to permit drift of no more than one nanosecond (equivalent to ~30 cm) in 10 days.
Details and picture of DSAC - with a quarter alongside - from NASA below.