Among the dozen military, government and research satellites aboard the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, launched from Florida (on Tuesday, June 25), there is a unique device, the size of a shoebox, that will become fundamental in the space race. It is the Deep Space Atomic Clock of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of NASA. It is an atomic navigation clock 50 times more accurate than those used by current global positioning systems (GPS) and delays only one second every ten million years. It is of paramount importance for the space and autonomous navigation of the ships. The atomic clock is installed on the satellite Orbital Test Bed and has involved two decades of development in the JPL workshops. Its implementation is essential for NASA and for the space race, an assessment shared by José Mariano López-Urdiales, Granada aerospace engineer founder of Zero2infinity, a company that develops balloons to position devices 36 kilometers from Earth and, in a near future, people.
NASA explains that the current ships use a retransmission system based on the reception of signals that they previously send to atomic clocks on Earth. This information allows us to know where they are and where they are going. But the time of this round trip to calculate location, trajectory and speed can take minutes or even hours, depending on the distance that separates the ship from our planet. This delay in response, which can generate errors or delay decisions, has led to the development of the new clock and place it in space. “We need a technology that allows astronauts to know where they are and quickly change course if we want to see more of the universe,” says the space agency. This new system is the Deep Space Atomic Clock, designed to be placed on board a spacecraft in order to calculate its location and route using only the signals it receives without needing to bounce on Earth, a methodology that facilitates the operations of the self-propelled ships. The applications are huge. In addition to facilitating accurate navigation, you could create a network of devices, similar to GPS, on Mars or the Moon and implement this technology in the current positioning systems to boost the automation of all types of vehicles. The clock will remain in space for a year to help NASA determine if it can remain stable in orbit. If all goes well, it could be used for missions in the 2030s