Atomic clocks explained: NASA set to launch a deep space timekeeper monday

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NASA is ready to launch the latest atomic clock into orbit on a Falcon Heavy tomorrow that could change the way of exploring space by a human.

This latest atomic clock will make spacecraft navigation to distant objects in space — on the journey to Mars. Scientist hope that Deep Space Atomic Clock will make spacecraft traveling in deep space to act on their own, there will not much communication needed with Earth.

This could be a great development to how spacecraft currently navigate, NASA said.

Astronomers are already using clocks to navigate in space. They send a signal to the spacecraft, which sends it back to Earth. The time it takes to round trip, tells the scientist about spacecraft’s distance from Earth. This is because the signal is traveling at the speed of light. By sending multiple signals over time, scientists can calculate a spacecraft’s trajectory where it was and where it’s going.

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Watches on the satellites mostly keep time using a quartz crystal oscillator. These take benefit of the fact that quartz crystals vibrate at a specific frequency when voltage is applied to them, NASA said in the statement. The vibrations act like the pendulum in a longcase clock. 

It might not be shocking to learn the atomic clocks that take advantage of the structure of atoms, which are made of a kernel of protons and neutrons surrounded by electrons. Each element of an atom has a distinct structure, with a diverse number of protons in the nucleus. While the number of electrons can vary, the electrons occupy distinct energy levels, and the right amount of energy can make an electron to jump to a higher energy level around the nucleus. 

The energy needed to make an electron do this jump is different to each element and constant with all atoms of that element. This is the reason atomic clocks can reach a production level beyond mechanical clocks.”

This is not the single reason that makes the Deep Space Atomic Clock special. This clock doesn’t just use mercury atoms but it also uses charged mercury ions. 

Ions are atoms that have an electric charge because of which they can be carried in an electromagnetic “trap.” This holds the atoms from associating with the walls of a vacuum chamber. When they interact with the vacuum walls, environmental changes appear such as temperature which causes changes in the atoms themselves and leads to frequency errors.

The Deep Space Atomic Clock won’t be directed to such environmental variations, according to NASA, and so will be 50 times more stable than the clocks used on GPS satellites. After the launch of the clock, scientists will be able to start testing the clock’s accuracy as it spends days, then months in orbit.