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Atomic Clocks Explained: NASA Set At Starting a Deep Space Timekeeper Monday



NASA is set to launch an incredibly new atomic clock in orbit on a Falcon Heavy tomorrow (June 24) in a technology demonstration mission that could change the way humans explore space.

] Deep Space Atomic Clock developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is a space-ready upgrade to the atomic clock we use here on Earth and to the watches that are already flying on satellites like those providing GPS.

Ideally, this new atomic clock will make spacecraft navigation to distant objects in space – on the journey to Mars for example – more autonomous NASA said in a statement . The accuracy of the spacecraft's position, which scientists hope to get with the Deep Space Atomic Clock, allows spacecraft to travel in the deep space to act on its own without much communication with Earth. It would be a huge improvement on how spacecraft is currently navigating, NASA said.

Related: This is what 2 dozen satellites look like packed for launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy

But how does it work?

Astronomers already use clocks to navigate the room. They send a signal to the spacecraft, which sends it back to Earth. The timing of this tour tells the researchers the spacecraft's distance from Earth. This is because the signal is heading for the speed of light as armed with the time it took to go to the spacecraft and back, the distance is only a simple calculation away. By sending more signals over time, researchers can calculate a spacecraft's path ̵

1; both where it was and where it goes.

But to know a spacecraft's location within a small margin of error, astronomers need very precise clocks that can measure billions of a second, according to NASA. They also need watches that are extremely stable. "Stability" here refers to how a clock constantly measures a time unit. While you think watches always measure the same length as a "second", bells tend to swing and slowly mark longer and longer times as a "second." In order to measure the location of spacecraft in distant spaces, astronomers must have their atomic clock to be consistent for better than one billionth of a second during days and weeks.

Modern watches, from those we carry on our wrists to those used on satellites most often take time using a quartz crystal oscillator. These exploit the fact that quartz crystals vibrate with a precise frequency when applied to them, NASA said in the statement. The vibrations act as the pendulum in a grandfather's bell.

However, according to the standards for space navigation, quartz crystal clocks are not very stable at all. After six weeks, they can be turned off by a full millisecond, which translates at light speed to 185 miles (300 kilometers). This very mistake would have a major impact on measuring the position of a fast-flowing spacecraft, NASA said.

Atomic watches combine quartz crystal oscillators with specific types of atoms to create better stability. NASA's Deep Space Atomic Clock will use mercury atoms and turn off less than one nanosecond after four days and less than one microsecond after 10 years. It would take 10 million years before the clock to be wrong with a full second, according to NASA.

Related: A NASA Atomic Clock on SpaceX's Next Falcon Heavy Will Pioneer Deep Space Travel Tech

It may not be surprising to learn that atomic clocks are using atoms that is composed of a nucleus of protons and neutrons surrounded by electrons. Atoms of each element have a distinct structure with a different number of protons in the nucleus. While the number of electrons that each type of atom has can vary, the electrons absorb different energy levels and a shot of exactly the right amount of energy can cause an electron to jump to a higher energy level around the nucleus.

The energy required to make an electron makes this jump unique to each element and is uniform for all atoms of that element. "The fact that the energy difference between these circuits is so accurate and stable is really the most important ingredient for atomic clock," said Eric Burt, a physical nuclear physicist at JPL, in the statement. "That is why atomic clocks can reach a level of performance beyond mechanical clocks."

Essentially, atomic bells can correct themselves. In an atomic clock, the frequency of the quartz oscillator is transformed to the frequency applied to a collection of atoms from a specific element. If the frequency is correct, it will cause many electrons in atoms to jump over energy levels. But if not, fewer electrons jump. It tells the clock that the quartz oscillator is off-frequency and how much to correct. On Deep Space Atomic Clock calculates this correction and applies the quartz oscillator every few seconds.

But that's not all that makes Deep Space Atomic Clock special. This watch not only uses mercury atoms, it also uses charged mercury ions.

Because ions are atoms that have electric charge, they can be contained in an electromagnetic "trap". This prevents atoms from interacting with the walls of a vacuum chamber, a common problem with the neutral atoms used in regular atomic clocks. When interacting with the vacuum walls, 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 exposed to such environmental changes, according to NASA, and it will be 50 times more stable than the watches used on GPS satellites. After the clock launches Monday, scientists will be able to start testing the clock's accuracy as it uses days, so months in orbit.

Deep Space Atomic Clock will launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy Rocket as one of two dozen payloads . The 4-hour launch window opens at. 11.30 am EDT (0330 June 25 GMT); Visit Space.com tomorrow for full coverage coverage.

Follow Kasandra @KassieBrabaw . Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook .


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