NASA is set to release an incredibly new atomic clock in the orbit of Falcon Heavy tomorrow (June 24th) in a demonstration technology mission that could transform the way people explore space.
Deep Space Atomic Clock developed by NASA's Reactive Engine Laboratory is ready to change the space to the atomic clocks we use here on Earth and to the clocks that are already flying on satellites like those that provide GPS .
Ideally, this new atomic clock will make spacecraft navigation to remote objects in space – the trip to Mars for example – more autonomous, NASA said in a statement . The accuracy in measuring the spacecraft's position, which scientists hope to receive with the atomic clock "Deep Space", will allow a spaceship traveling in deep space to act independently without much communication with the Earth. This would be a tremendous improvement in the way spacecraft are currently being run, NASA said. This is what 2 dozen satellites look packed for launching SpaceX Falcon Heavy
But how does it work?
Astronomers now use clocks to navigate space. They send a signal to the spacecraft that sends it back to Earth. The time of this tour tells scientists the distance of the spacecraft from Earth. This is because the signal is moving with the light velocity so armed with the time it takes to switch to the spacecraft and vice versa, finding the distance is just a calculation. By sending multiple signals over time, scientists can calculate the trajectory of the spacecraft ̵
Modern watches from those we carry on our wrists to those used on satellites most often hold time using a quartz oscillator. They take advantage of the fact that quartz crystals vibrate with exact frequency when tensions are applied to them, says NASA's statement. The vibrations act like the pendulum in the grandfather's watch.
But according to space navigation standards, quartz watches are not very stable. After six weeks, they can be turned off for a full millisecond, which is expressed in light speeds up to 300 kilometers. This big mistake will have a huge impact on measuring the position of fast-moving spacecraft, NASA reported.
Atomic clocks combine quartz quartz oscillators with certain types of atoms to create better stability. NASA will use mercury atoms and will be off less than a nanosecond after four days and less than a microsecond after 10 years. According to NASA, it will take 10 million years for the watch to be erased for a full second. Nuclear clocks of NASA for SpaceX's next falcon will be pioneering technologies for deep space travel
It may not be surprising to learn that atomic clocks are taking advantage of from a structure of atoms that are made up of a core of protons and neutrons surrounded by electrons. The atoms of each element have a different structure, with a different number of protons in the nucleus. While the number of electrons that each atom has can vary, the electrons occupy separate energy levels, and one stroke of the right amount of energy can lead to a leap of the electron to a higher energy level around the nucleus. The energy needed to make an electron, this jump is unique to each element and corresponds to all the atoms of this element. "The fact that the energy gap between these orbits is such an accurate and stable value is really a key ingredient for atomic clocks," says Eric Burt, a nuclear clock physicist at JPL. "This is the reason why atomic watches can reach performance levels beyond mechanical watches."
Essentially, atomic clocks can be adjusted. In the atomic clock, the frequency of the quartz oscillator is transformed into the frequency that is applied to a collection of atoms from a particular element. If the frequency is correct, it will cause many electrons in atoms to jump to energy levels. But if it is not, less electrons will jump. This tells the clock that the quartz generator is out of frequency and how much to correct it. At the Deep Space atomic clock this correction is calculated and applied to the quartz oscillator every few seconds.
But that's not all that makes special Deep Space atomic clocks. This watch uses not only mercury atoms, but also uses charged mercury ions. Since ions are atoms that have an electric charge, they can be contained in an electromagnetic "trap". This prevents the interaction of atoms with the walls of the vacuum chamber, a common problem with neutral atoms used in regular atomic clocks. When interacting with the walls of the vacuum, environmental changes such as temperature can cause changes in the atoms themselves and lead to frequency errors
The Deep Space atomic clock will not be subject to such environmental changes, according to NASA, and so it will be 50 times more stable than the watches used in GPS satellites. After the clock starts on Monday, scientists will be able to start testing the accuracy of the clock as they spend days and then months in orbit.
The "Deep Space" atomic clock will be released from the spacecraft "Kennedy" in Florida on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy as one of two dozen payloads . The 4-hour launch window opens at 23:30. EDT (0330 June 25 GMT); visit Space.com tomorrow for full coverage of the launch.